If you want to lose weight, then adopting a diet high in carbohydrates and calories is probably not the best way to go about it. But for individuals with motor neuron disease, such a diet could slow progression of the condition.

This is according to a study recently published in The Lancet.

Motor neuron disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks the upper motor neurons in the brain and lower motor neurons in the spinal cord.

This can lead to the weakness and wasting of muscles (atrophy), which can cause loss of mobility in the limbs, difficulties swallowing and breathing, and problems with speech. These issues usually lead to respiratory failure and death 3 years after diagnosis.

ALS affects approximately 30,000 people in the US, with 5,000 new cases being diagnosed every year.

ALS patients split into three diet groups

Since the majority of ALS patients have difficulties eating and swallowing, weight loss of both muscle and fat is common during disease progression.

But according to the research team, led by Dr. Anne-Marie Wills at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA, recent research found that mice with ALS that were mildly obese were likely to live longer, and mice with an ALS-causing gene lived longer when they were fed a diet high in calories and fat.

With this in mind, the researchers wanted to see how high-calorie diets affected humans with ALS.

For the study, the investigators analyzed 20 patients with advanced ALS who already had to be fed with percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tubes that allow the food to be delivered directly to the stomach.

These patients were divided into three groups. The first group was fed a high-carbohydrate/high-calorie diet, the second was fed a high-fat/high-calorie diet, while the third followed a standard diet to help maintain weight and acted as a control group.

All patients were required to follow their diets for 4 months and were monitored for 5 months from the study baseline.

High-carbohydrate/high-calorie diet 'could slow down ALS progression'

The researchers found that while patients in the control group experienced 42 adverse events linked to ALS, patients in the high-carbohydrate/high-calorie groups experienced 23 adverse events. They also had no serious adverse events, including deaths, while patients in the control group had nine.

Furthermore, patients in the high-carbohydrate/high-calorie groups gained 0.39 kg more weight per month, compared with 0.11kg per month in the control group, and there was an average weight loss of 0.46 kg per month in the high-fat/high-calorie group.

The researchers note that they found no adverse outcomes associated with weight gain throughout the study period.

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Wills says:

"Although the sample size was small, we are optimistic about these results, because they are consistent with previous studies in ALS mouse models that showed that hypercaloric diets improve survival.

Not only could this type of nutritional intervention be a novel way to treat and slow down the progression of ALS, it might also be useful in other neurological diseases."

But the researchers say these findings should be "interpreted with caution," noting that larger studies are needed to determine the association between high-carbohydrate/high-calorie diets and ALS disease progression.

In an editorial linked to the study, Dr. Ammar Al-Chalabi, of King's College London in the UK, says that although he will not be changing his diet advice to patients based on these findings, he is keen to see what results come from larger trials.

"Wills and colleagues have taken the first steps needed to provide evidence for a robust, non-pharmacological treatment that is well tolerated and easy to administer. We must finish the work they have started," he adds.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing how ALS spreads in the body. Researchers say it could be possible to halt the disease using antibodies.