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Oil Change: Can the Ketogenic Diet Treat Multiple Sclerosis?

What is the ketogenic diet?

Key points

  1. The ketogenic diet is high in fat, moderate in protein, and low in carbohydrates.
  2. Ketones act as an alternative energy source during metabolic stress.
  3. It’s important to talk to your doctor before you start a new diet or exercise program.

The ketogenic diet is high in fat, moderate in protein, and low in carbohydrates. It induces a state of ketosis, tricking the body into starvation mode. This diet emerged in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy in children.

Dietary treatments for epilepsy can be traced back as far as 500 B.C., according to Epilepsia. The ketogenic diet was popular for two decades before the development of antiepileptic drug therapies.

Scientists have revisited the diet during the last couple of decades, and not just for treating epilepsy in children. Recent studies suggest that following a ketogenic regimen could benefit people with other types of neurological disorders, including MS.

Burning fat versus burning carbs

A ketogenic diet causes your body to burn off fat rather than carbohydrates. Glucose is the body’s preferred fuel, but a change in metabolism occurs when you restrict your intake of carbohydrates. Your liver starts producing bodies called ketones. These ketones appear to protect the cells of the nervous system, the site of damage in MS. 

Scientists do not fully understand why ketones provide this protection. It’s possible that it results from increased energy in the cells. This added energy may strengthen the neurons against damage from oxidation or inflammation.

Benefits of a ketogenic diet

There are many potential benefits to eating a high-fat, low-carb diet, with protein in moderation. The benefits may include the following:

  • The ketogenic diet has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities.
  • It protects against various forms of cell death.
  • Ketones act as an alternative energy source during metabolic stress.
  • Ketosis reduces the toxic effects of glutamate acid, a byproduct of brain injury.
  • It can also bring about weight loss.

The changes that happen at the cellular level may be especially desirable for people suffering from a neurological disorder like MS.

Achieving ketosis

It’s important to talk to your doctor before you start a new diet or exercise program. You may be referred to a dietitian to help monitor your progress, depending on your medical history.

A ketogenic diet typically consists of mostly proteins and healthy fats, with minimal carbohydrates. The menu should be comprised of whole, unprocessed foods. Carbs should ideally come from vegetables, nuts, or dairy. The diet is very similar to the Atkins diet.

The role ketosis might play in MS

Researchers don’t fully understand what brings about the ketogenic diet’s neuroprotective qualities. One theory is that ketones produced by the liver provide more fuel to cells in the brain. These ketones may give these cells the ability to resist damage from MS inflammation.

Finding the good fats

Eating a diet high in fat may sound counterintuitive to healthy living. The key lies in the types of fat you include. Here are some tips for eating healthy fats that are encouraged in the ketogenic Mediterranean diet:

  • Use olive, sesame, or avocado oils for salad dressings and meal preparation.
  • Avocados, a versatile source of healthy fats and potassium, are great in guacamole, salad dressing, and smoothies. Or use it in place of mayonnaise as a spread on toast or sandwiches.
  • Salmon and mackerel, as well as other fish and seafood, are high in omega-3s.
  • Almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios are all good sources of monounsaturated fats.
  • Pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are great snacks that contain polyunsaturated fats.
  • Chia seeds and ground flaxseeds provide fiber, omega-3s, vitamins, and minerals.

Saturated fats like coconut oil, duck fat, and butter are encouraged in the original ketogenic diet, to help you consume enough overall fats daily. The ketogenic Mediterranean diet recommends moderate intake of saturated fats and higher intake of plant-based unsaturated fats.

Foods to avoid

You have to be aware of what foods contain carbs in order to limit your carb intake. There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

Simple carbs are found in:

  • all forms of sugar
  • candy
  • milk, which is full of lactose
  • fruit and vegetable juices
  • jelly and jams
  • desserts

Complex carbs are found in:

  • beans
  • bread and pasta
  • starchy vegetables like potatoes
  • cereal and grains
  • whole fruits

Complex carbohydrates typically contain more fiber and nutrients, making them the ideal choice for steady energy and overall health.

You are what you eat

More research needs to be done before we know the benefits of a ketogenic diet for people with neurological disorders such as MS. Other diets, such as the Swank diet, the Wahls diet, and the paleo diet may be worth considering for people trying to control their MS.

Scientists have long supported the adage that if you want to be healthy, you must eat healthfully. Talk to your doctor if you’re considering a dietary approach to treating your MS symptoms.

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