Sticking to a low-fat, vegan diet may help people with multiple sclerosis fight fatigue, according to a new study presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Philadelphia.
The study, which began in 2008, is the first randomized-controlled trial to examine the effect of a low fat vegan diet on managing MS, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system.
Results showed that participants with MS who followed a plant-based diet for one year experienced significantly less fatigue than those who continued to eat meat, fish, and dairy products. The vegan diet tested in the study is based on the McDougall Diet, which was designed by Dr. Roy Swank—a neurologist at the Oregon Health & Sciences University—in the 1940s and 1950s to fight symptoms of MS, according to a press release accompanying the study.
“Fatigue can be a debilitating problem for many people living with relapsing-remitting MS," said study author Dr. Vijayshree Yadav in a press release. “So this study's results—showing some notable improvement in fatigue for people who follow this diet—are a hopeful hint of something that could help many people with MS.”
According to the National MS Society, fatigue occurs in about 80 percent of people with MS and may be the most prominent symptom that MS patients experience.
How Diet Affects MS
For this study, researchers focused on people with relapsing-remitting MS, the most common form of the disease, which affects about 85 percent of sufferers. This type of MS is characterized by periods of disease flare-up, followed by periods of remission.
According to the McDougall Diet, the calories a person consumes should be comprised of 10 percent fat, 14 percent protein, and 76 percent carbohydrates, with a focus on starches such as potatoes, corn, rice, beans, pasta, oats, and fruits and vegetables.
Researchers measured a range of MS symptoms—including brain lesions on MRI brain scans, relapse rates, and disabilities caused by MS—in participants who followed the diet for 12 months and in members of the control group, who did not follow the diet. Body weight and cholesterol levels were also recorded for participants in both groups.
A total of 53 people completed the study, Yadav said in an interview with Healthline, with 22 people in the diet group and 27 people in the control group. Participants in the diet group received cooking demonstrations, lectures, and advice on choosing the right foods from restaurants and grocery stores.
The researchers did not find any differences between the two groups in the number of brain lesions detected on their MRI scans, their relapse rates, or their levels of disability. But they did find that participants who followed the plant-based diet lost more weight, had lower cholesterol levels, and reported improved mood and overall quality of life.
A Patient-Driven Study
Due to the small number of participants in the study, more research is needed to fully understand how a plant-based diet can help people with MS, Yadav told Healthline.
Yadav said the study was inspired by people with MS who were curious about lifestyle and dietary changes they could make in order to ease MS symptoms.
“With the patients asking about these things, we thought that this was the right information that we should be looking into,” she said. “If we can decrease the impact of the disease in any way, these interventions can help a person with MS have a better quality of life.”
Finding new therapies to help people with MS will also have a huge impact on health care costs for society as a whole, she said.