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Is a low-fat diet helpful in managing MS symptoms? Image credit: Maki Nakamura/Getty Images.
  • A new study shows people with multiple sclerosis (MS) may experience an improvement in fatigue by adopting a low-fat diet.
  • MS symptoms including pain or fatigue may improve when patients are following a healthy diet plan.
  • Experts agree further research is needed to understand the relationship between MS, fatigue, and adopting a low-fat diet.

Previous research supports the idea that eating foods low in fat can improve a person’s overall health, which includes reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer.

According to a new study, people with multiple sclerosis (MS) may experience an improvement in fatigue by adopting a low-fat diet. The findings were published in Multiple Sclerosis Journal.

In this randomized controlled trial, researchers examined 39 MS patients who experienced fatigue. They were separated into two groups: 19 people were in the control group and received diet training at the end of the 4-month study.

The other 20 people, the “active” group, received 2 weeks of nutrition counseling and then followed a low-fat diet for 12 weeks. Their blood was tested regularly to observe the health effects.

The group that received nutrition counseling and adopted a low-fat diet showed a great improvement in fatigue, which was measured by the Modified Fatigue Impact Scale. Once per month, participants answered questions for researchers to analyze their ability to concentrate, focus and perform daily physical activities.

“With this randomized controlled study, we are able to show that dietary changes can play a significant role in symptom management in people with multiple sclerosis (MS),” Dr. Vijayshree Yadav, principal investigator and senior author, professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine and director of the OHSU Multiple Sclerosis Center, told Medical News Today.

“Studying that diet can change symptoms in people with MS is a significant finding and adds to the body of literature that diet is important in people with MS. People with MS are constantly asking what kind of diets they should be taking. This study will add scientific validity to these questions,” she added.

Further research is needed to better understand the relationship between fatigue, MS and a low-fat diet, however.

“As the next step we are working on studying the blood collected from these subjects who took part in the diet study,” Dr. Yadav explained. “The blood test will show chemical changes using advanced techniques and may shed light on how fatigue changes in people with MS with low fat diet. We expect to get these results in the next 6 months. Additionally, we plan to conduct more studies to confirm these findings in a larger population of MS in the [United States].”

“Diet has been of interest in relationship to MS for many years,” said Dr. Erin Longbrake, an associate professor of neurology at Yale School of Medicine as well as director of clinical research in neuroimmunology. Dr. Longbrake was not involved in this study.

She advised that:

“While there is not strong evidence that any one diet is sufficient to control the disease itself, some symptoms of the disease may be improved with certain diets, in this study, they looked at a low-fat diet, and — with some caveats — demonstrated that people following the diet reported greater improvements to their fatigue during the study compared to those in the control group.”

“This aligns with my clinical experience; MS symptoms like pain or fatigue are sometimes better when patients are following a healthy diet plan — like this low-fat diet — compared to when they are not,” Dr. Longbrake continued.

Dr. John W. Lindsey, a professor and director of the Division of Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, also not involved in this research, explained the relation of diet to fatigue is unknown and uncertain.

“The investigators did this study to test whether high fat intake is related to fatigue. They found a modest improvement in fatigue in the subjects on the low-fat diet. Their diet also excluded red meat and the participants ended up eating less overall calories and would have changed the intake of other food groups,” said Dr. Lindsey.

“It is not clear which of these changes might have a benefit. We should also consider the role of the placebo effect, since the subjects that changed diet knew they were making changes and were hoping for an improvement in fatigue,” he added.

While a low-fat diet may be beneficial for MS patients, it is also good for a person’s overall health.

“People with MS who suffer from fatigue may want to consider making a trial of dietary changes to see if their symptoms are less bothersome,” Dr. Longbrake explained. “A low-fat diet would be one example of a dietary change. Generally, dietary changes need to be consistently observed for weeks to months before drawing conclusions about whether they help or not.”

There are simple healthy swaps that can make a difference.

“A low-fat diet is better for overall health, and is a good idea regardless of the effect on MS,” said Dr. Lindsey. “You could decrease the intake of fried foods, substitute baked fish or chicken for red meat, increase intake of fruits and vegetables.”

The recent study faced several limitations that are important to note.

“There are caveats with this paper, [including a] lower-than-desired numbers of patients, and thus it was likely underpowered to detect differences in fatigue,” Dr. Longbrake pointed out.

“Additionally, patients in the control group also changed their diets during the study and also reported some improvements in fatigue. I think we don’t yet have a full understanding of the extent to which dietary change may impact MS symptoms,” he noted.

Nevertheless, there is certainly no harm in following a low-fat diet — this is already a recommendation in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines — and patients may wish to try these lifestyle modifications, Dr. Longbrake added.

Future work will need to examine the generalizability of this study’s findings as well as whether other types of dietary modifications may also prove beneficial.