Following a plant-based diet low in saturated fat may be most beneficial in reducing certain symptoms in people with multiple sclerosis (MS), according to new research.
While there is no strict “MS diet” that has been proven to be an effective treatment, previous research has showed that certain foods may improve or worsen MS symptoms. The new study, however, suggests that people who experience fatigue may particularly benefit from a plant-based diet.
Scientists from Oregon Health & Science University began the study in 2008 with 53 volunteers with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS)—the most common form of the condition characterized by relapse periods of worsened symptoms, followed by recovery periods of partially or completely improved symptoms.
The researchers focused on how the study participants’ symptoms might be affected when they followed the McDougall Diet. The McDougall Diet was created by Dr. John McDougall based on the fact that plant foods are the most abundant sources of nutrition. The diet prohibits animal products—including dairy and meat—fish, white rice, coffee, vegetable oils, refined cereals, chocolate, coconut and soda. Instead, the diet is rich in whole grains, legumes, lentils, fruits and vegetables.
The study’s participants were divided into two groups—27 people in the control group and 22 people who followed the diet’s restrictions. The study was a randomized controlled trial, meaning that neither the researchers nor the participants chose who was in each group. Over the course of a year, the researchers measured MS symptoms and indicators, relapse rates, disabilities caused by the disease, body weight and cholesterol levels.
The results of the study showed no difference in the number of brain lesions in the participants in the control group, when compared with those who followed the diet. The people who followed the diet lost more weight and had significantly lower cholesterol levels than did the control group. Additionally, those who followed the diet reported having a better quality of life and overall mood than did the control group.
Another noteworthy finding was that the people who followed the diet had much less MS-related fatigue at the end of the study than they did at its start, and they experienced much less fatigue than people in the control group.
The findings, presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting earlier this month, suggests that a low-fat vegan diet may help people with MS manage fatigue caused by the condition. MS symptoms vary from person to person and can include vision problems, numbness, muscle spasms and coordination problems; however, fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of MS, occurring in about 80 percent of people with the condition.
The researchers who conducted the new study said that their findings could have important implications for people whose fatigue is debilitating. However, because the study’s sample size was relatively small, larger trials are needed that more closely examine how a low-fat vegan diet may help fatigue and potentially affect other MS symptoms.
Multimedia journalist with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a master’s in Broadcast Journalism and Public Affairs