Is diet a risk factor for MS?

Many of us with multiple sclerosis follow specific diets in hopes that eating in a specific way will slow disease progression or at least keep our symptoms at bay. I’ll fess up about what I do, which is basically follow a regimen that is dairy-free, legume-free and gluten-free, with almost no sugar or processed foods. However, I will admit that I eat plenty of fat, including massive amounts of olive oil, coconut oil and some red meat. I am caffeine-free, but drink some alcohol. I guess it’s pretty similar to the Paleo Diet (if cavemen drank wine). It seems to be working for me and I keep honing it as I notice things that make me feel worse (or better) when I eat them.

Of course, there are several different diets that people with MS follow, including the Swank Diet, the Best Bet Diet and the Wahls Protocol. Many neurologists will point out that no diet has been proven through rigorous scientific study to make any difference in disease progression or disability. But what about diet impacting your risk for developing MS?

I was interested to see the session called “Dietary patterns not associated with the risk of multiple sclerosis” at the 2014 Joint ACTRIMS-ECTRIMS Meeting, as I had never seen information about the influence of overall diet on developing MS presented at a scientific meeting – most research done to date has focused on the influence of certain components of a diet (such as fat or salt) or supplements.

Researchers looked at data from the huge cohort studies known as the Nurses Cohort Study I and II, comprising data from over 185,000 women followed over decades. Their dietary habits were determined by a survey given every four years. Researchers were able to apply several different dietary models and give the women a “score” based on their answers. Over the time that the data was collected, 480 women were diagnosed with MS.

When the dietary scores of the women who developed MS were compared to the scores of those who didn’t, it turns out that there was really no difference. In other words, the women that had a healthy diet had the same chance of developing MS as those who ate poorly.

Interestingly, previous studies suggest that obesity is a risk factor for MS, especially among young females. One study showed that women who were obese at 18 had twice as much risk of developing MS as those who weren’t obese. Even more extreme was other data that showed that young girls who were extremely obese between ages 7 to 10 had a four-fold risk for developing MS later in life.

Bottom line: So far, it doesn’t look like anything that we did or didn’t eat caused us to have MS. However, more research is needed in this area.The obesity information is interesting, and further research is being planned to see if people who have MS can lessen symptoms and disease progression by losing weight through intermittent fasting. We’ll stay tuned to that one.

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  • fightback   Sep 12, 2014 4:08 PM
    Question, who is Sep 12, 2014?
  • Faren Gay   Sep 12, 2014 4:27 PM
    I've had MS since 98. I decided to try the green smoothie diet. Was only able to do it for 3 days because i became very weak. I'm not able to walk so what else can I do to help me loose weight?
  • Linda   Sep 12, 2014 5:49 PM
    I am a strong believer that food is our best medicine. But yes i agree more research is needed in this area to fully understand this. One factor that was not looked at in the Nurses Cohort Study was the health of the gut of the participants. One interesting article i read today here: was quite interesting. The study examined intestinal barrier dammage in multiple sclerosis. Interestingly the findings provide support for the idea that a damaged intestinal barrier can prevent the body ending an autoimmune reaction in the normal manner, leading to a chronic disease such as MS. The researchers believe that future drugs to treat a disease such as MS should perhaps not only focus on the central nervous system, but also on the intestines by repairing and restoring the intestinal barrier. But let's not forget that there are natural ways to repair and restore the intestinal barrier. I've been following a very similar diet as you described above but i also include foods to continuously restore my intestinal walls by taking l-glutamine and probiotics. Linda (
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    CowboysnAngels  Sep 12, 2014 6:46 PM
    I have RRMS, diagnosed in 2012, although I've had symptoms since the 90's. I have irritable bowel-d, am lactose intolerant, allergic to MSG (Mono-sodium Glutamate), and have a slight intolerance to gluten in cereals, however I can eat toast. My husband and I are on a heart smart diet. Since eliminating MSG completely the past four years, I have gone from 140 pounds to 117 pounds. We eat no fast foods, purchase fresh vegetables and eat a lot of chicken. We do not eat pre-packaged/boxed foods. I wasn't trying to lose weight, but realized it was the elimination of the MSG, and it took a lot of the D part of IBS-D away. If you search the internet for "other names for MSG" you will be amazed, it is hidden in the ingredients. I don't notice any difference in the MS though, just wanted to share.
  • Annie   Sep 12, 2014 7:00 PM
    I was overweight all throughout my childhood and didn't lose weight and start eating healthy until 8th grade. And then I was diagnosed with MS at age 16. For some reason it really wouldn't surprise me if weight was a factor. It makes me wonder, though, whether MS is preventable for some people due to this.
  • LAURIE   Sep 13, 2014 9:04 AM
    i have MS and I once read that if one may become wheel chair bound to watch your weight and and process food as well . I choose not to eat beef. With my MS i cannot digest it as well
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    marshina  Sep 13, 2014 11:20 AM
    My suggestion is NO processed food. Corn, unless grown in your yard is all GMO. It has no nutritional value, just fills you up. Corn is fed to animals. We eat a Mediterranean diet. Fresh, not packaged veggies and fruits. Lot's of wild fish, not farmed. Organic chicken and little to no red meat. I drink wine daily, nothing stronger. However this is not what causes MS. It just keeps you healthier. There is not one thing that causes the disease. I ask many women if they had mononucleosis. All say yes. Regarding not exercising because one cannot, I find cutting portions in half helps with weight gain. Needless to say, no fast foods. The latest gluten fad is nothing more than that. My belief is several factors happen that causes the cells to go berserk. That's why we all get it differently.
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    refusetoquit  Sep 15, 2014 10:50 AM
    I've been missunderstood many times as I talk how eating nutritional meals helps MY MS. I don't believe poor nutrition 'causes', OR, good nutrition will 'heal' MS. I DO, however believe that proper nutrition 'manages symptoms'. No longer will I try to 'talk you into this knowledge'.With PPMS it's a waiting game with research and I'm not waiting or holding my breath before I help myself with nutrition. TIME, DEDICATION TO YOUR CAUSE speaks for itself. Finding what works for your digestion is key to sleep habits, BM's, urinary,'s easy to bauk at it.....either tou want to TRY to 'manage' MS or you prefer to be miserable. Been there with ALL exciting as one by one they dissappear and another boost in confidance appears.

    I wanted to appreciate many comments with the blog but the site isn't letting me. Thanks.
  • Trina   Sep 17, 2014 10:41 PM
    I was diagnosed with autoimmune thyroiditis in the 70's and through the years have noticed a lot of other symptoms that sound like I have been experiencing MS. I have had crisis periods more recently where bed is the only partial respite. Realizing that the diagnosis is hard to come by, I have never had any tests to support such a diagnosis along with any doctors that would believe me having any problems. I have never been one to complain and became a pretty good actress in hiding any problems…symptoms, even in front of a doctor. I have been into health and trying different things to stay healthy which, I believe, have been my saving grace. I used the Body Ecology Diet in the 90's and had never felt better. My bowels were moving regularly, my mind was clear, my fatigue left, I had no digestive problems, I had energy, my aches and pains seemed to have vanished, I lost weight without trying (35 pounds in 3 mos) and life was good again and stayed that way for 5 years. I do think diet has a direct impact on our bodies health, even when it comes to disease and elimination and good bowel health is uppermost in being whole body healthy. I read somewhere that doctors use to be taught how to do colonics to keep their patients healthy, but past years the training has been dropped because people were getting and staying well. Does anyone know of any clinical trials going on for MS right now that I could participate in? I would be interested in the ones that use supplements and healthy foods….no medicines.
  • Dena   Sep 18, 2014 10:00 AM
    Highly recommend Ann Boroch. The Swank Diet does have documented data too.
  • Angel   Sep 18, 2014 3:04 PM
    I was diagnosed with MS 14yrs ago.I have a 6yr old that's keeps me very busy. I do have trigimminal neuralgia which is quiet persistent recently. I take an oral med for MS and Triliptril for TN. Iwish I could find an 'old wives cure' for nerve pain then I would be set !
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    Hannah80  Sep 18, 2014 10:29 PM
    I follow Swank diet and it is really helpful. No processed food, no dairy, no red meat. Lots of sea food, vegetables and fruits,..
    I love this diet and it is not hard at all. Diet is not a heal for MS but I think it modulates the symptoms, specially fatigue.
  • northwesternviews  Sep 19, 2014 11:17 AM
    There should be research to discover if there is a cause of MS of whow on how one lives their life
  • davidwat1958  Jun 11, 2015 4:52 PM
    been diagnosed with ppms for the past 6 years, have difficult time walking long distances, am taking vitamin d each day and doing physiotherapy leg exercises .
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    ps98107  Jun 22, 2015 11:32 AM
    "is diet a risk factor for MS?" For a mostly whole foods, organic, plant-based diet and even a pescatarian diet or vegetarian diet where the animal protein is cut to 5% or less per serving, it is not a risk factor and has not only significantly improved my RRMS symptoms in an epic way but eliminated my exacerbation events altogether. Proper diet is both the best medicine and the prevention for getting any disease. Anyone is capable of getting any disease but all diseases need a catalyst to wake it up in us and processed food companies, with their unnatural combination of chemicals in food additives and preservatives, are producing all kinds of catalysts. we must read all the labels. When I was diagnosed in 2002, my diet was the first change I made. At that time I was unable to play my musical instruments anymore but I kept trying and eventually got my strength and ability back.
  • Nancy   Sep 17, 2015 3:33 PM
    Hi, this is for my daughter she is 16 year, she was diagnostic with MS when she was 14 year, and we try to be strong. She is with the injection Interferon and I'm looking try something natural. If you can help me!!!!
  • Polly Werner   Mar 2, 2017 11:59 PM
    It's interesting that you mention that just as many people developed MS who ate a "healthy" diet as those who didn't. What is "healthy"? It wasn't defined.

    The study's abstract only mentions two diet patterns, "western" and "prudent." I imagine the prudent diet was assumed to be the healthy diet, although it is unknown what it consists of. I wish the author had gotten more details.

    It would have been more useful if the study had looked at a greater variety of diets. I look forward to seeing the results of the current study with the Wahls and Swank diets. I doubt that many of the people in the Cohorts study were eating a modified Paleolithic diet, such that the Wahls protocol recommends. Nowadays many people eat processed foods as a matter of course, and it is very common to eat meat from animals that have been treated with hormones and antibiotics and/or grain-fed (which changes the inflammatory omega ratios).