Can Diet Affect Multiple Sclerosis?

By Sue Hughes
WebMD Health News

Sept. 25, 2014 -- A new study of dietary patterns and risk for multiple sclerosis finds no relationship between eating a high-quality, healthy diet and a lower risk of getting MS.

Although the researchers looked at the diets from 185,000 women participating in other large studies, they focused on diets in adults only. It's possible that diet in adolescence may be more important regarding risk for MS.

Dalia Rotstein, MD, from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, says that "further research is required to determine the possible role of dietary quality in the early years."

She presented the research at MS Boston 2014, the 2014 Joint Americas and European Committees for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis meeting.

Still, other studies presented at the same session of the conference showed that people with MS who also had other medical conditions have more MS disability. With this in mind, Rotstein tells Medscape Medical News, "We do know that healthy diet can help people in general and reduce other [conditions in people who have MS], especially cardiovascular disease, so this will help MS in the long run."

Another study presented at the meeting showed no effect of a plant-based diet very low in saturated fat on MS, although numbers of people in the study were small.

It was linked to less fatigue, though, along with improvements in body mass index and total cholesterol. This caused the researchers to conclude that "a diet very low in saturated fats may yield longer-term quality-of-life benefits and vascular health benefits" in people with MS.

Adolescence: A Critical Window?

On this point, Rotstein says obesity in adolescence has shown a strong link to a greater risk of getting MS. But studies in adults have been more mixed, and obesity in adults has not been definitely linked with an increased MS risk.

"Our study was conducted purely in adults, with a youngest age of 25," she says. "All we can say from our results is that there does not appear to be a direct relationship between diet quality and risk of developing MS as an adult. We cannot say anything about eating habits in adolescence and risk of MS from these data. It is possible that the adolescent years are a critical window, but our study doesn't answer that question."

She also says the "high-quality" diets evaluated in this study were all aimed at preventing cardiovascular disease. "It is possible that different patterns would be better for preventing immunological diseases, but we don't know that."

"I have many MS patients who believe that diet may have affected them developing the disease," she adds, "and they feel guilty that they cannot or did not comply with a healthy diet -- so these results can provide some reassurance in that regard."

Rotstein says although a specific MS diet hasn't yet been found, there was a great deal of support for vitamin D. "The one nutritional factor that has been shown time and time again to be linked to MS is vitamin D deficiency. I tell all my patients to take vitamin D supplements, but other than that I think it is an open question as to whether other dietary factors affect the disease."

Low-Saturated-Fat Diet

The other study presented here by Vijayshree Yadav, MD, of Oregon Health & Science University, and colleagues, looked at a low-saturated-fat diet in MS. The study was inspired by the work of Dr. Roy Swank in the 1950s. Swank suggested that people who ate high amounts of saturated fat were at higher risk for MS.

The study evaluated a plant-based diet very low in saturated fat known as the McDougall diet. The makeup of the diet is estimated at 10% fat, 14% protein, and 76% carbohydrate, with a focus on starches such as potatoes, corn, rice, beans, oats, fruits, and vegetables. Meat, fish, and dairy are not recommended.

For the study, 61 participants were randomly assigned to this diet or to a different group. The diet group got dietary training in a 10-day program and then completed monthly food-frequency questionnaires for 1 year.

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What kind of disease is multiple sclerosis? See Answer

Results showed no discernible effect on the MS disease process. But the researchers say the study was probably too small and had too short a follow-up to detect such changes.

They did find improvement in fatigue, though. People in the diet group also lost an average of 20 pounds in weight and had improved cholesterol and mental health scores.

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SOURCE: Medscape Medical News: "Can Diet Affect Multiple Sclerosis?"

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