10 Healthy Eating Tips for MSby Hallie Levine
Here's the straight-up truth: There's no magic food that will automatically improve multiple sclerosis symptoms, says Julie Fiol, M.S.W., B.S.N., senior manager of MS information and resources at the National MS Society. But there is evidence that certain eating patterns can help reduce the overall inflammation associated with the condition, which in turn may reduce your risk of developing other, related health issue such as heart disease and type two diabetes. Plus, "a healthy diet will just make you feel better in general, so you’re better equipped to deal with symptoms," Fiol says. Here's what to keep on your plate—and what to scrape off.
Eat More Low-Fat Dairy
People with MS are more at risk for osteoporosis, Fiol says. This is because the disease may leave patients more sedentary, so they can't regularly participate in weight-bearing activities. What's more, some of the medications used to treat MS—like steroids—can lead to bone loss. The National MS Society recommends 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day for adults ages 25 to 65 and 1,500 milligrams per day for postmenopausal women, preferably from calcium-rich food sources like low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese. These foods are also fortified with vitamin D, which may help reduce MS-related symptoms, Fiol says.
Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
Tummy troubles are common among folks with MS. The best way to fight this is by adopting a high-fiber diet, Fiol says. If you’re constipated, fiber will help soften your bowel movements, and if you have diarrhea, it can help resolve it by bulking up your stool. You may need as much as 30 grams of fiber daily (one cup of raspberries delivers eight grams, one medium apple 4.5 grams, and one cup of boiled green peas nine). Fruits and veggies are also rich in antioxidants like vitamins C, E, and A, which tamp down inflammation, says Angela Lemond, R.D.N., a dietician in Plano, TX, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Eat More Fatty Fish
Add salmon, tuna, lake trout, or even sardines to your plate at least once per week. These fish are all rich in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids, Lemond says. A study by Australian researchers found that the more fish people with MS ate, the higher their quality of life. They also had less disease activity and fewer relapses. If fish isn't your thing, ask your doctor about taking a supplement.
Eat More Fermented Foods
Drinks and dishes like kefir, yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut are rich in probiotics, which are the good-for-you gut bacteria believed to be beneficial to our health in many ways. One theory is a lack of these healthy bugs may contribute to a range of autoimmune conditions, including MS. A study published in the journal Nature Communications, for example, found that folks with MS have different types of gut bacteria—including more "bad bacteria"—than those without the disease. To help balance out the bad, try adding one serving of fermented foods to your daily diet.
Eat More Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are rich in biotin, a form of B vitamin that shows promise in fighting MS. One French study published in Neurology found people with MS who were given high doses of this vitamin (300 milligrams per day) for 48 weeks showed improvement in symptoms compared to those given a placebo. That said, the research around taking biotin supplements is mixed (always talk to your doctor first) so focus on food sources instead. Bonus: Nuts and seeds are also a good source of healthy fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which help reduce inflammation.
Eat More Whole Grains
Some people with MS shy away from these types of food because they contain gluten, but there’s no real evidence that a gluten-free diet will help improve MS symptoms, Fiol says. Foods such as barley, brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-wheat breads and pastas are not only rich in fiber but also in nutrients like selenium, an antioxidant that some studies suggest is lower among those with MS. Just steer clear of refined grains, like white flour and highly processed foods devoid of any nutrients, which may worsen inflammation, Lemond says.
Drink Less Caffeine
While your morning cup of joe is still okay—and maybe even beneficial—too much caffeine can aggravate the bladder dysfunction that can occur with MS, Fiol says. And if you drink too much of it late in the day (after 3 p.m.), it can worsen the insomnia that may accompany the condition. Some people also find that it aggravates symptoms like muscle spasms and hand tremors, she says. Your move: Stick to 300 milligrams of caffeine or less per day—that’s about two cups of coffee.
Eat Less Salt
The more sodium people with MS have in their diet, the more likely they are to relapse, according to a Harvard study published in the journal Neurology. But there's another reason to skip the salt shaker: It can raise your blood pressure, and people with MS are already at higher risk of developing heart disease, explains Fiol. Aim for less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, or 1,500 mg if you already have heart disease.
Eat Less Saturated Fat
Back to that increased heart-disease risk: That's why it's even more important for people with MS to limit their intake of saturated fat, which comes primarily from animal sources like red meat, full-fat cheeses, butter, and whole milk and yogurt, as well as plant sources such as coconut and palm oil, say Fiol. Less than 10 percent of your calories each day should come from saturated fats, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If you're trying to lower your cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to six percent of your total daily calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories per day, that's about 13 grams of saturated fat.
Eat (and Drink) Less Sugar
Foods that contain added sugars like cookies, cakes, and sugar-sweetened beverages just add extra calories into your diet without any added nutrition, which can cause you to pack on pounds that may make it harder for you to manage your MS symptoms. Plus, these types of foods trigger inflammation that may potentially worsen MS, adds Fiol. A 2019 study presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting, for example, found that people with MS who drank about two cans of regular soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages per day reported more severe symptoms and greater disability than those who rarely sipped the stuff.