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Perspectives in MS
Perspectives in MS

Diet and MS: Part 1

One of the most frustrating features of MS is that it is an illness over which people feel they have little to no control. The illness develops for no apparent reason, and relapses tend to occur at random, unpredictable intervals. It is natural for patients in this situation to do anything they can that will give them a sense of control over their illness. One of the most common and understandable ways that people do this is by changing their diet. It seems intuitively obvious that improving one’s diet would lead to improvement in every aspect in one’s health, including MS. After all, “you are what you eat.”

Probably the most famous proponent of a dietary treatment for MS was Dr. Roy Swank. He proposed a dietary regimen low in saturated fat as the core feature of his suggested plan, The Swank diet, which recommends:

  • No red meat for one year—and only minimal amounts afterward.
  • Saturated fat should be less than 15 grams per day; unsaturated fats should be 20-50 grams per day. Processed food should not contain saturated fat.
  • Dairy products should contain one percent or less fat.
  • Omega-3 in the form of fish oils are suggested as well as vitamin and mineral supplements.

Dr. Swank published his results in 1990 in the medical journal The Lancet, one of the most prestigious journals in the United States. In this study, 144 patients took a low-fat diet for 34 years. Dr. Swank found that “For each of three categories of neurological disability (minimum, moderate, severe) patients who adhered to the prescribed diet (less than or equal to 20 g fat/day) showed significantly less deterioration and much lower death rates than did those who consumed more fat than prescribed (greater than 20 g fat/day).”

So what does one make of these results? They certainly sound impressive. Should every patient with MS radically change their diet as a result of this study? Most neurologists would say “no,” as the study suffered from several design flaws. In my next post, I will explore what I believe to be some potential problems with studies of diet and MS.

I am available via e-mail at perspectivesinms@healthline.com and will try to answer all questions.

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About the Author

Dr. Howard is a neurologist & psychiatrist, and an expert in multiple sclerosis.

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