Eating a healthful diet comprising fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may be linked with reduced disability and fewer multiple sclerosis symptoms among people with the condition, according to a new study published in Neurology.

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Researchers say that a healthful diet may help to improve symptoms and disability for people with MS.

Back in July, Medical News Today examined the evidence for the Swank diet, developed in the 1950s as a treatment for people with multiple sclerosis (MS). Proponents of the Swank diet believe that it can reduce the frequency of flare-ups and lessen the severity of symptoms related to the disease.

But the National Multiple Sclerosis Society state that there is not currently enough evidence to recommend any one diet as best for people with MS.

The author of the new study, Kathryn C. Fitzgerald — who works in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD — acknowledges that there is a lack of evidence on the potential influence that diet may have on MS symptoms.

“People with MS often ask if there is anything they can do to delay or avoid disability,” explains Fitzgerald, “and many people want to know if their diet can play a role, but there have been few studies investigating this.”

To examine the role that diet may play in MS, Fitzgerald’s team looked at questionnaires completed by 6,989 people with MS as part of the North American Research Committee registry.

As well as providing information regarding their lifestyle, weight, physical activity, and whether or not they smoke, the participants were asked whether or not they had had a relapse of MS symptoms in the past 6 months.

The participants also reported their level of disability and how severe their symptoms were for fatigue, pain, mobility, and depression.

Participants in the group that was considered to have the best diet ate an average of 1.7 servings of whole grains and 3.3 servings of fruits, vegetables, and legumes per day.

The participants in the group that was considered to have the worst diet ate an average of 0.3 servings of whole grains and 1.7 servings of fruits, vegetables, and legumes per day.

After adjusting the results for confounding factors — such as age and how long the participants have had MS — the team found that people in the group with the most healthful diet were 20 percent less likely to have more severe physical disability than people in the group with the least healthful diet.

The new study also reports that “people with an overall healthy lifestyle were nearly 50 percent less likely to have depression, 30 percent less likely to have severe fatigue, and more than 40 percent less likely to have pain than people who did not have a healthy lifestyle.”

“While this study does not determine whether a healthy lifestyle reduces MS symptoms or whether having severe symptoms makes it harder for people to engage in a healthy lifestyle, it provides evidence for the link between the two,” concludes Fitzgerald.

However, the participants in this study were mostly older white people who had been diagnosed with MS for an average of 20 years. This means that although people with all types of MS were included in the study, the findings might not apply to everyone who has the disease.

The authors confirm that another limitation of the study is that its design does not provide an insight into whether healthful diets influence MS symptoms in the future.