Why Diet Matters When You Have MS

If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you know that it is important to stay on top of your medications, physical therapy, and other treatment plans to take good care of yourself.


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Plus, following a healthy diet can make a big difference.

It’s not that healthy eating is a magic bullet to cure MS. But following a healthy MS diet can make a difference in how you feel and how your condition progresses.

“MS is a chronic disease that cannot be cured. But it can certainly be controlled,” says registered dietitian Natalie Crtalic, RD, LD. “What you eat can make a big difference in how you feel and function.”

We spoke with Crtalic about what a healthy MS diet looks like and how eating well can help you feel your best.

How Your Diet Affects MS

Even though your diet won’t rid you of MS, it can make a big difference in your overall well-being. So consider what you eat as part of your overall strategy for managing MS. Another arrow in your quiver to live your best life.

Crtalic shares some reasons why eating right is important for people with MS.

Reduce inflammation

At its core, MS is an inflammatory autoimmune disease. And eating a healthy diet can help keep inflammation under control.

People with MS have an overactive immune system that attacks their nervous system. That causes chronic inflammation throughout your central nervous system, which can be responsible for your MS symptoms such as weakness, numbness, pain, stiffness, and spasms.

“MS causes more inflammation in your body. But eating healthy foods can help keep that inflammation under control,” notes Crtalic.

Certain foods are known to contribute to inflammation. These include red meat, saturated fats, added sugars, and highly processed foods. By cutting back on these foods, you can make room in your diet for nutrients that help fight the inflammation that contributes to MS flare-ups.

Ward off other chronic diseases

MS is not caused by unhealthy eating. But a diet high in processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats can put you at risk for developing other chronic conditions that can affect your health and complicate MS.

Some of the most common life-threatening and chronic health conditions in the United States are linked to less healthy diets. That includes things like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers.

“It’s common to turn to food for comfort when you have a chronic illness like MS,” Crtalic acknowledges. “It’s stressful and upsetting, and emotional eating can make you feel better in the moment. But down the road, it can make things much worse if you develop other conditions that need to be managed now, too.”

The best diet for MS

If you search for what you can and can’t eat when you have MS, you’ll likely come across lists of specific foods you can and can’t eat.

According to Crtalic, the reality is that a healthy MS diet should include a variety of fresh, whole foods.

“There is no specific magical food,” she says. “It’s not that you have to eat one thing and not another. It’s about making good choices overall.”

How do you do that?

For most people with MS, the Mediterranean diet is a great place to start. “The Mediterranean diet emphasizes heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory foods. These are the choices that will help you feel your best, prevent flare-ups, and reduce your risk for other chronic conditions,” says Crtalic.

MS Diet: Foods You Should and Shouldn’t Eat

Following a Mediterranean diet when you have MS is not about a list of foods to eat and avoid. It’s about creating a lifestyle that encourages nutrient-rich foods and discourages added sugars and saturated fats.

“It’s a matter of eating more natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, and focusing much less on processed foods, sugars and saturated fats,” Crtalic explains. “It’s a healthy diet for just about anyone.”

Here are some examples:

Eat more of this
Lean proteins, such as fish and poultry, and vegetable proteins, such as beans, nuts and legumes.
Eat less of that
Red meat, such as steak, pork, veal and lamb.
Whole fruits and vegetables.
Eat less of that
Fried foods and pastries.
Eat less of that
Egg yolks.
Fat-free and low-fat dairy products.
Eat less of that
Cheese and full-fat dairy products.
Whole grain products, such as oats, quinoa, barley and brown or wild rice.
Eat less of that
Refined flour products, such as white bread, crackers and white rice.
Extra virgin olive oil.
Eat less of that
Vegetable fat, butter, sour cream and mayonnaise.

Taking gluten and dairy into account

Some people with MS may benefit from lowering their gluten or dairy intake. But that’s not a blanket recommendation.

“Gluten or dairy can be a trigger for some people with MS and other inflammatory conditions,” Crtalic notes. “But that’s not necessarily true for everyone. I also always encourage people to pay attention to how they feel after they eat those foods. If you’re managing them well and don’t find that they’re making you feel worse, then it’s definitely OK to continue eating those foods.”

If you suspect that a particular food or food category is making your symptoms worse, try avoiding it for a week or two and see if that helps.

“If you feel better after cutting out dairy and/or gluten, those foods may be triggers for you. If leaving it out feels good, then that might be the right path for you. Listen to your body,” Crtalic advises.

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