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4 Ways a Low-Fat Vegan Diet May Benefit Those With MS
Some experts believe a low-fat vegan diet is helpful for people with multiple sclerosis. One study has tested that theory.
By Vanessa Caceres
Medically Reviewed by Robert Jasmer, MD
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It’s appealing to think that changing your diet might improve your multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms, and a number of dietary approaches have been studied with just that idea in mind.
A randomized, controlled study published in September 2019 in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disordersexamined the effects of following a low-fat vegan diet on MS progression, disease activity, and quality of life.
A vegan diet contains only plant-based foods and includes no foods of animal origin — no meat, fish, dairy products, or eggs.
The researchers enrolled 61 participants with multiple sclerosis in the study and followed them for a year. About half adhered to a very-low-saturated-fat, plant-based eating plan called the McDougall diet, which permits fruits, vegetables, and starchy plant foods such as beans, bread, corn, potatoes, and rice, while prohibiting meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products.
The diet is promoted by John McDougall, MD, a well-known and at times controversial advocate of the diet as a way to cure or prevent many illnesses. His foundation helped fund the study.
The research was conducted at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine (OHSU), in Portland.
While following a low-fat, plant-based diet resulted in no significant improvement on brain MRIs, MS relapse rates, or disability scores among participants, the study did find some potential benefits, including weight loss, less fatigue, and improved quality of life.
1. More Energy, Less Fatigue
Fatigue is one of the most common complaints among those with MS, and the study found higher energy among the study subjects following the diet.
“Close to 50 percent of the participants had a decrease in fatigue,” says the lead study researcher, Vijayshree Yadav, MD, an associate professor of neurology at the OHSU School of Medicine and the clinical director of the university’s Multiple Sclerosis Center.
One study participant, Karen Cooper, of Woodbury, Minnesota, knows what it’s like to feel fatigued. Diagnosed with MS in 2010, Cooper is a social worker managing two jobs while also acting as the caregiver for a boy with cerebral palsy.
“At the end of the day, I’d feel like I was hit by a truck,” she says.
Cooper was assigned to the control group of the OHSU study, which means she did not follow the diet during the study, but once it ended, she attended a training session on the McDougall diet and transformed her eating habits. Now that she chooses low-fat vegan meals, she says, her fatigue is all but gone and she has enough energy to manage her home and work life.
2. Weight Loss
Those who followed the diet lost an average of 16 pounds, the researchers say. By losing weight, you also lower your chance of developing health problems like high blood pressure or diabetes, says Dr. Yadav. Newer research also suggests that obesity and high cholesterol could influence the progression of MS, Yadav says.
But keep in mind that any commitment to healthier eating is beneficial, says Kathleen Costello, the vice president for healthcare access for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Whether you follow a diet like the one in the study or another type of eating plan, if it helps you lose weight, you may avoid the health problems associated with being overweight.
3. Healthier Cholesterol and Insulin Levels
Among study participants following the vegan diet, both total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol — LDL, or “bad” cholesterol — levels decreased, lowering the risk of atherosclerosis.
The study group also saw its insulin levels decrease, another indicator of better health.
4. Improved Mood and Quality of Life
For those following the McDougall diet in the study, there was a trend toward improvement in quality of life and overall mood when compared with those who did not follow it.
Cooper notes that following the McDougall diet may cause you to feel better in part because of what you are not eating. Before learning about the McDougall eating plan, she says, she ate fast food and drank diet soda and had acid reflux, irritable bowel issues, and migraines. Cooper says she no longer needs medications for those health issues and is feeling great.
A Plant-Based Diet for MS: Some Caveats to Consider
Before you give your kitchen pantry a makeover and switch to a vegan diet, keep a few points in mind.
First, the study discussed here involved a small group of participants. Although the findings are worth exploring with a larger group, says Costello, it’s hard to generalize the results to everyone with MS.
“It’s incorrect to believe that one intervention will be the one to help everyone. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says.
Also, you should always speak to your doctor before changing your diet.
“Multiple sclerosis is very individualized,” Costello says. Your needs may differ from those of the study participants, and no one has yet to identify a dietary intervention proven to help everyone with MS.
Video: HOW A HIGH CARB LOW FAT VEGAN DIET AFFECTED ME (For 2 Yrs) | Jacfruits
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