Ongoing research is looking into the connection between diet and multiple sclerosis (MS). The goal is to determine if food choices can help manage MS, prevent flares, and slow disease progression.

Some people recommend avoiding dairy or following specific diets. Some studies suggest dairy products can worsen MS. Dietary patterns or specific nutrients may play a role in MS relapses.

We know that there is increased inflammation during a relapse of MS. We also know that certain dietary patterns can lower inflammation. The hope is that foods and nutrients can play a role in reducing symptoms and slowing MS progression.

It’s hard to say for sure. Research shows a diet high in saturated fats can increase inflammation in the body.

Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products. Dairy products are one source of saturated fats. Full-fat milk and yogurt, cream, cheese, butter, and ice cream all contain saturated fats. Other sources of saturated fat include meat, poultry skin, coconut, and egg yolks.

It’s always hard to tease out exactly what parts of the diet may be a problem. A typical North American diet is high in saturated fat, but it’s also high in refined carbohydrates. White, refined grains and high-sugar foods are also linked with inflammation. It may be more useful to look at whole dietary patterns instead.

It’s not recommended that everyone living with MS needs to avoid dairy. Dairy products provide nutrients like protein, calcium, and vitamin D.

We need protein to build and repair body cells. It also plays a role in keeping a strong immune system. Other sources of protein are nuts, seeds, beans, fish, and seafood.

Vitamin D and calcium are important for bone health. People with MS need to ensure they have enough as they are at greater risk of osteoporosis. In fact, higher blood levels of vitamin D are associated with better outcomes.

You may want to discuss dietary changes with your medical provider to address your specific concerns. A dairy-free diet may not be right for everyone. If you decide to cut down or eliminate dairy, there are other ways to meet your nutrient needs.

If you decide to cut down or avoid dairy because of other issues, you will need to find other ways to get the nutrients that dairy would provide. The main ones are calcium and vitamin D.

Other sources of calcium include:

  • milk alternative beverages with added calcium, such as soy, almond, and oat beverages
  • calcium-fortified orange juice
  • sardines and canned salmon with bones
  • leafy green vegetables
  • tofu and some beans
  • some nuts and seeds

Our bodies make some vitamin D in response to sunlight. However, it’s hard to get enough vitamin D in this way, especially if you live somewhere without full sun year-round. Most people need some amount of vitamin D supplement.

People with MS typically have lower blood vitamin D levels. Research shows that high doses of vitamin D may be required to normalize levels.

One small study from 2010 had participants with MS taking up to 40,000IU vitamin D daily. That’s way higher than the normal recommendation of 1000-2000IU daily. There may be some benefits, but more research is needed in this area.

It’s not recommended to take such a high dose on your own. Talk with your doctor to get bloodwork to check your vitamin D status. This can help determine the right dose of vitamin D supplement.

There is ongoing research into the best way to eat to manage MS. Some research suggests that dairy should be avoided. However, the data to support this is very limited. This may be a good approach for some people to try as long as other foods provide enough calcium.

People with MS tend to have low vitamin D levels. It’s a good idea to get bloodwork to check your levels. A supplement will likely be needed to get levels into target.