Diet and Nutrition for Multiple Sclerosis: The Ultimate Guide
Exploring the relationship between MS and nutrition.
Written by Liana Greenshields, Student in the Dietetics Specialization program at the University of Alberta and reviewed by our Health Stand Nutrition Dietitian Team.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system which attacks the protective coating of the spine called the myelin sheath. Myelin’s role in the body is to speed up nerve impulses to the brain, therefore damaged myelin in MS patients affects their ability to transmit these signals. Symptoms of MS vary for every patient but typically include dizziness, fatigue, bladder/bowel dysfunction, numbness, and muscle spasms.
If you’ve ever searched for the “best diet for people with MS” online, it is likely you came across a vast number of diets. However, it is difficult to find any scientific evidence to back them up. As a result, nutrition for MS is a topic of research because of the many grey areas that surround it, including the question of what causes MS. Some studies show that vitamin D deficiency can be a cause, among a few other nutrition-related claims.
In this post, we will look into the possible effects of diet on the diagnosis and management of MS.
Can your diet cause MS?
Multiple diseases, including hypertension and diabetes, can be linked to diet. As a result, extensive research has been conducted on MS to see if it is also caused by diet. However, no cause has been established to date. With that being said, maintaining a balanced healthy diet can make living with any chronic disease much more manageable, especially MS.
➔ What about vitamin D? Vitamin D can be most easily obtained through exposure to sunlight, fortified dairy products, or supplements. As previously mentioned, vitamin D deficiency has been linked as a possible cause of MS. The reason for this is because studies have shown that the demographics who obtain lots of sunlight and vitamin D in their diet are at a lower risk of developing MS. It has also been shown to reduce the severity of symptoms in those who already have the disease. Due to the unknowns of the disease, vitamin D cannot be officially stated as a cause, but it is still a topic of research which may prevent the disease or slow progression in those who are already infected.
Can MS be cured through diet?
Unfortunately, diet has not been shown to be a cure for the disease. In fact, MS actually has no proven cure. Diets such as the Wahls diet claim to cure the disease, but the evidence is contradictory and has yet to be fully explored. Therefore, the key takeaway is that symptoms can be managed and the progression of the disease can be slowed through medication and treatment, not directly by diet.
What diet is best for MS?
It is believed that MS cannot be treated with diet, so there is no specific diet that MS patients should follow. With that being said, however, making healthy diet choices can help improve the overall quality of life of individuals living with MS. Doing so not only promotes a healthy heart but also maintains a healthy body weight which can decrease disease activity and severity of flare-ups. Therefore, proper diet and nutrition for MS revolve around heart-healthy foods, such as the ones listed below:
Foods to prioritize with MS include:
- Fruits and vegetables – Great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Whole grains – Refined grains lack the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that whole grains contain.
- Lean meats – Lean meats are low in saturated fats and a great source of protein.
- Vitamin D-containing foods – Although this is still being researched, some studies have shown that vitamin D helps reduce autoimmune reactions in the body. Vitamin D also helps the body absorb calcium which is important for individuals with MS since they are at a higher risk of low bone mineral density.
- Unsaturated fats – Foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil are all great sources of unsaturated fats which promote a healthy heart.
Foods to limit with MS include:
- High-sodium foods – Eating foods high in sodium can increase blood pressure, which can result in heart disease.
- Saturated fats – Consuming too much saturated fat can increase LDL cholesterol in the blood, which is considered the “bad” cholesterol.Learn more about saturated food here in our previous blog post: The Scoop on Saturated Fat
- Ultra processed foods – These packaged foods tend to have many of their vitamins and minerals stripped during processing, ultimately lowering the nutritional value.
- Foods with added sugars – Consuming lots of food high in sugar can contribute to excess calories in your diet and can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Following a diet around these recommendations is ideal for individuals with MS to improve their overall quality of life!
What about diets found online such as the Swank diet, gluten-free diet, and the Paleo/Wahls diet?
There are many diets found online that claim they can cure MS. The Swank diet restricts saturated fat to below 15g per day, the gluten-free diet restricts all gluten-containing foods, and both the Paleo and Wahls diets restrict dairy, grains, high carb fruits/vegetables and legumes from the diet.
These diets are believed to help decrease symptoms or halt the progression of MS, but scientific studies have shown that these claims are not true. Also, these diets restrict nutritious foods all of which could be included in a balanced diet. Additionally, foods containing dairy usually contain high levels of vitamin D, a vitamin that is particularly important for people with MS.
Therefore, the evidence does not demonstrate that these diets have any positive effect on slowing the progression of MS. Again, avoiding the restriction of certain foods contributes to proper mental and physical health, which are important in individuals with MS.
Myths about MS and Diet
Myth #1: A certain diet can prevent flares
A major myth about diet and MS is that a “special diet can prevent flares”. As mentioned previously, there is no “all-around diet cure” for MS, but there are certain foods to prioritize in the diet to make the disease more manageable.
Myth #2: You should not exercise if you have MS
Proper diet and exercise can help maintain a healthy body weight, build muscle, and stay healthy. This not only applies to the general population but also to individuals with MS. Combined with a balanced diet, regular, non-vigorous exercise can help lower the risk of other health problems, ultimately improving quality of life. Exercising too hard can cause fatigue and may cause symptoms to worsen for the time being, so always consult with your healthcare provider before undergoing any intense exercise.
Myth #3: Individuals with MS should eat lots of vitamin D-rich foods
First of all, vitamin D cannot be explicitly stated as a possible cause of MS due to the many grey areas surrounding the disease. Therefore, focusing on a balanced diet instead of specific nutrients is important for an all-around balanced diet. For more information on Vitamin D visit this article on Vitamin D.
Myth #4: Eating your favourite sweets and treats could worsen your symptoms because they are unhealthy
Never, in any case (except allergies!) should a diet restrict your favourite foods! All foods can fit. Individuals with MS are advised to eat a balanced diet; this includes pizza, ice cream, cookies, and whatever else comes to mind. The consumption of such foods in moderation is helpful in promoting mental health and wellbeing for people with MS, since the disease can sometimes feel overwhelming.
Multiple sclerosis can be a difficult disease to deal with due to the number of unknowns surrounding it. From the cause, treatment, and nutrition misinformation, MS is still being researched and many questions need answering. From what we know now, eating a balanced diet can help manage MS by promoting an overall healthy body.
As research continues on MS, there may be some answers to the questions surrounding MS and nutrition. But for now, a balanced diet can result in a good quality of life, ultimately making the disease management much easier.
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I just wanted to say thank you for your accurate and fact based write-up in regards to MS and diet. As an MS patient myself I have done tremendous research into diet as a way to manage the disease because diet is something I can control. I appreciate that you did not propel the unproven claims some diets promote but rather encourage MS patients (and people in general) to eat for overall good health.
Thanks for letting us know Lindsay! I’m glad you found the article helpful since you are very right – there are many unproven claims that promote information that is either false or not scientifically substantiated by research.