If it’s not our bookshelves bulging with the latest diet advice, it’s our Instagram feeds. Dewy-skinned health bloggers snacking on avocados, and sipping kale smoothies – all of them claiming to have transformed their health with the latest wacky clean eating plan. But while it’s tempting to believe trendy super foods have magical healing powers, is there any evidence any particular diet helps when it comes to multiple sclerosis?
Well, yes and no. We know that a nutritious balanced diet is one of the most important things you can do to support your health, whether or not you have MS. Not only will this provide all the nutrients your body needs to function optimally, it will also help you to maintain a healthy BMI, or body mass index (anything between 18.5 and 24.9 is spot on).
Obesity and increased MS risk
Because, the thing is, a healthy diet isn’t just about fitting into your favorite jeans – it can help ensure everything’s running smoothly on the inside, too. Research shows that being obese is linked with an increased risk of developing MS, for example, which scientists suspect is down to raised levels of inflammatory compounds in the body. If you already have MS then anything that raises levels of inflammation is not good, so there’s all the more reason to watch your weight.
Beyond the clean eating hype
The question is, with so many crazy diets doing the rounds, what’s the best way to eat healthfully? Well, there is some new evidence that suggests the Paleolithic (paleo) diet could be beneficial for people with MS. And it’s not actually as faddy as it sounds. If you’ve not heard of paleo eating (seriously, where have you been?), the diet takes its name from the Paleolithic times when our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived on natural wholesome foods such as fresh meat, fish, nuts, vegetables and fruits. These nutrient-rich foods form the basis of the diet – which isn’t actually a “diet” in the calorie-counting sense, as the emphasis is on nourishing the body rather than restricting calories. There’s just one catch – dairy products, grains (such as wheat), and pulses (such as chickpeas and lentils), potatoes and, most crucially of all, processed food, are all off limits (apparently our ancestors weren’t big on pizza and doughnuts…).
Although some experts would caution against excluding dairy products (these are an important source of calcium and protein for some people), there may be some logic to elements of the paleo thinking. Like the fact that the diet is essentially low carb, replacing starchy foods like potatoes, rice, and pasta, with more nutrient-dense ones that provide a slower more-sustained release of energy.
Eating to beat fatigue in MS
Avoiding spikes in blood sugar is important for anyone with fatigue, as that sudden release of energy is all too quickly followed by a sugar crash. Therefore, avoiding foods that are high in carbohydrates might help people with MS. A study from the University of Iowa found that people with secondary progressive MS who followed a treatment regime including a modified paleo diet showed significant improvement in their energy levels. That said, the regime also included vitamin and mineral supplements, exercise and electrical muscle stimulation, so there’s no way of telling if the diet was actually responsible for the results seen. It’s also important to remember that carbohydrates are an important source of fiber (vital for healthy bowels), so rather than cut them out altogether, aim to cut back on refined carbs and eat more complex whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa instead. If you’re unsure, speak to your doctor about the best eating regime for you.
Another thing the paleo diet has going for it is that it’s very brain-friendly. All those fruits and vegetables provide a wealth of neuroprotective antioxidants and anti-inflammatory plant compounds that may well influence MS disease activity. Fish also makes sense – oily fish, in particular, is an important source of vitamin D, low levels of which are linked with increased risk of MS; it’s also rich in omega 3 essential fatty acids, which are vital to optimal brain function. One recent study of people with relapsing-remitting MS, for example, found those who ate the most fish fared better in terms of quality of life, relapse rate and disease progression. Another big tick.
Ditching the fast food
As for processed food, cutting this from your diet definitely makes sense. Not only is it likely to be high in unhealthy saturated fats, it also tends to contain high levels of salt. Excessive salt intake can be bad news for your health and could even, in some cases, increase risk of MS. Definitely something to think about.
More research is needed to explore the benefits of the paleo diet, but in the meantime it certainly wouldn’t hurt any of us is to cut back on stodge and eat more fruit and vegetables. Generally speaking, the more colourful your plate, the more nutrients it will provide. It’ll also look super pretty when you Instagram it! #eatsmart