Questions about MS? Call us on 0808 800 8000
A woman preparing vegetables in a kitchen

Special diets and MS

Some people find special diets make a difference to how they feel. Perhaps they feel the diet has reduced how many relapses they get. They might feel it’s improved their overall quality of life. But others don’t feel this way. At the moment, there isn’t any conclusive evidence to suggest that special diets are effective.

Following one of these diets is an individual choice – but if you do decide to try a new diet, it’s important to make sure you still get enough energy and all your essential nutrients.You should speak to your doctor before making any major changes to your diet, particularly if you have any other health conditions which might also affect your dietary needs.

The Swank diet

The Swank diet is perhaps the best known diet associated with MS. It is named after Dr Roy Swank, who developed the diet in the 1940s. It restricts the amount of fat you can eat: no more than 15 grams of saturated fat a day, and between 20-50 grams of unsaturated fat. It also limits your intake of red meat and oily fish, although you can eat as much white fish as you like.

Research into this diet has not definitely proved any benefits. Although a number of studies have been carried out, they have not generally been well designed. They also had very high drop-out rates, so without knowing what happened to the people who dropped out of the study, it's hard to draw clear conclusions. But following this or a similar diet would not generally be considered bad for health.

Cutting down on meat and dairy foods to reduce saturated fats might leave a shortfall in protein, so it’s important to find alternative sources such as fish, beans and pulses.

Cod-liver oil has a blood-thinning effect and should be taken with caution if you take aspirin, drugs that help prevent blood clots (known as anti-coagulant medications, including warfarin) or have a bleeding disorder.

If you have diabetes you should speak to your doctor before taking cod-liver oil. This diet can be low in energy and unless care is taken to maintain energy intake, it may not be suitable if you have high energy needs or are underweight.

George Jelinek's Overcoming MS programme

The Overcoming MS (OMS) programme was developed by Dr George Jelinek in 1999 following his own diagnosis with MS. It combines a number of different elements, including diet, exercise, meditation, vitamin D and medication.

The OMS diet recommendations are similar to the Swank diet. It advocates cutting out dairy and meat, and reducing fat intake – particularly saturated fat. It also recommends supplementation, particularly with omega 3 (in the form of fish oil or flaxseed oil) and vitamin D if your exposure to sunlight is limited.

Research into this diet has not provided conclusive evidence of its benefits. However, as with the Swank diet, following the OMS programme is not likely to be considered bad for you. You should make sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet, through eating plenty of fish, beans or pulses. Likewise, the diet may be low in energy, so it may not be suitable for you if you have high energy needs or you are already underweight.

The Best Bet diet

The Best Bet diet recommends avoiding several different food types, including all dairy, grains and red meat. Fish, chicken and turkey are recommended for protein. It also recommends having allergy tests to discover other foods to be avoided and includes a list of 18 recommended supplements.

Currently, research doesn’t suggest that there are benefits for MS from taking large numbers of supplements or from cutting out any of these food types completely. It’s also worth remembering that taking supplements can be expensive.

Like the Swank diet, this diet can also be low in energy so care should be taken if you have high energy needs or are underweight.

The Paleo diet

The Paleo – or Paleolithic – diet is based around the foods that a caveman would have had access to. The idea is that these are the kinds of foods our bodies are best adapted to eating. This includes meats, fish, nuts, vegetables and fruit, but excludes dairy, grains, pulses, potatoes and processed food.

There has been very little research into the benefits of this diet for people with MS. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that it will affect the course of someone’s MS. One small study, looking at a programme which included the Paleo diet alongside exercise, supplements and meditation, found that it may reduce fatigue.

Following the Paleo diet would not generally be considered bad for you, although you would have to make sure you were getting all the nutrients you need. Cutting out whole food groups such as dairy, wholegrains and pulses is restrictive. The large amounts of meat recommended are higher than current health advice on how much meat you should eat, and can also be expensive. 

The Wahls diet or protocol is based on the paleo diet.