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Does Diet Matter in Multiple Sclerosis?

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Q) What is known about the impact of diet on multiple sclerosis? How can I advise my patients with MS?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic inflammatory and degenerative central nervous system disease affecting more than 2.5 million people worldwide. Today, if a Google search is performed for “diet and MS,” more than 67 million results are obtained. Many tout specific protocols as beneficial for MS but have no substantial data to support these claims. This can be confusing for patients as well as providers. How should you advise those who ask for advice on dietary modifications to help control symptoms or disease course?

First, it’s important to remember that individuals with MS have a reduced median lifespan (by about seven years), compared to healthy controls. Furthermore, patients with MS commonly have comorbid conditions—such as diabetes, obesity, and ische­mic heart disease—that increase mortality risk.1,2 Diet and nutrition are significant factors that impact the course of these diseases.

We must also bear in mind that patients with MS experience symptoms that may impede their efforts to prepare meals. In a 2008 study of 123 MS patients (more than 50% of whom were overweight or obese), fatigue was cited as a significant factor that limited cooking and food preparation. Cognitive impairment and depression also may affect dietary intake. Interestingly, the average recorded intake for all food groups was less than that recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.3

A web-based survey conducted by the German MS Society in 2011 revealed that 42% of the 337 respondents had modified their diet due to MS. These modifications included change in intake of fatty acids; decrease or elimination of meat, sugar, and additives; and introduction of a low-carb or Paleo diet.4

Among an international sample of 2,087 MS patients, a significant association was found between a healthy diet and improved quality of life (both physical and mental) and reduced disability. This “healthy consumption” of fruits, vegetables, and dietary fat was also associated with a marginally decreased risk for relapse. Patients who demonstrated increased disease activity were more likely to have poor consumption of fruits, vegetables, and fats and to consume more meat and dairy products.5

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