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Multiple Sclerosis: Make Healthy Eating a Priority

Unfortunately, you can’t eat your way around multiple sclerosis (MS). Even though a variety of special diets have been promoted as MS cures, none have been shown in controlled trials to alter the course or severity of MS. Like everyone else, you’ll benefit most from a healthy diet that provides the recommended nutrients for a person your age and that promotes good cardiovascular health.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) created MyPlate to replace the familiar Food Pyramid we all know and love. The new website gives detailed info about the healthy combination of foods you should see on your plate on a daily basis and provides tips on how to find balance between food intake and physical activity, how to get the most nutrition out of calories, and how to stay within your daily calorie needs.

The bottom line, no matter what your individual needs are, is that you get the most benefit from a diet that

  • Contains a balance of grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats (or meat substitutes), and low-fat dairy products

  • Provides you with only as many calories as you need

In addition to a balanced, low-fat, high-fiber diet (and a daily multivitamin), MS specialist neurologists and nutritionists recommend that you keep the following important points in mind:

  • Calories count. If you eat more calories than you burn, your weight will go up — it’s as simple as that. Along with its other benefits, exercise burns calories. So, if you’re less mobile or active than you used to be because of your MS, you need to reduce the number of calories you’re consuming in order to maintain the same weight.

    And, in order to make all your calories count, the best strategy is to get them from nutritious foods rather than from those yummy but not-so-nutritious desserts and junk foods that do nothing for your waistline or your well-being.

  • Calcium protects your bones. Everyone needs hefty amounts of calcium for strong bones and teeth. However, a person with MS — particularly women at or near menopause and men and women who are less mobile — may be at increased risk for osteoporosis (bone loss) for a couple of reasons:

    • Mobility problems, fatigue, weakness, and spasticity (stiffness) can all contribute to a reduction in physical activity, including weight-bearing exercise, which, in turn, can lead to bone loss.

    • The corticosteroids that are used to treat MS relapses (exacerbations) can increase the risk of bone loss.

    • Heat sensitivity, fatigue, and reduced mobility may decrease the amount of time you spend in the sun, which affects your exposure to the vitamin D that is necessary for calcium absorption.

    We recommend 1,000 mg per day of calcium for women and men between the ages of 25 and 65, and 1,500 mg per day for postmenopausal women. Because vitamin D promotes the absorption of calcium, making sure that you’re getting sufficient amounts of vitamin D from sunlight, the foods you eat, or a dietary supplement is also important.

    Research has shown that vitamin D levels in the general population are low, leading many physicians and researchers to believe that adults may need more than the currently recommended 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D. Talk with your physician about getting a blood test to check your vitamin D level. The results of that test can help determine whether you need additional vitamin D and, if so, how much you need

  • Fluids help fight urinary tract infections. People who are experiencing bladder problems tend to cut back on liquids in order to avoid having to pee all the time. However, reduced fluid intake can worsen fatigue and constipation and can increase the risk of urinary tract infections. So, do your best to drink eight glasses of liquid per day.

    Water is hands-down the best, but low-calorie sodas (without aspartame if you have an ornery bladder), skim milk, seltzer, and plain tea or coffee (decaffeinated for that same ornery bladder) come in second. And finally, high-calorie sodas and fruit juices take a definite third. Ice cream, yogurt, sorbet, gelatin-based desserts, and soups are also good sources of fluid.

  • With enough fiber, all systems are a go. Constipation is a common problem in MS. So, if you’re less physically active and don’t drink enough fluids, the problem is likely to be even worse. And some of the medications used to treat common MS symptoms — such as amantadine for fatigue, baclofen for spasticity, and the medications for overactive bladder — may also contribute to the problem. But adequate fiber intake can help a lot.

    You should aim for about 25 to 30 grams a day, from foods such as whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice and whole wheat pasta, dried beans, lentils, and peas, and vegetables, fruits, and nuts.

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