In my job as a Nutritional Therapist, I often ask people to make considerable changes to their diets and lifestyle. Very often, this involves beginning the Overcoming MS program. For some people, this may feel daunting - a complete overhaul - and involves ditching the foods they love and survive on, to replace them with foods they are unfamiliar with or unsure how to prepare. For others, it may not be such a complete overhaul but instead is a question of adding or building on existing practises.

Whether you like to go from ‘zero to hero’ overnight or instead take your time by implementing new habits little by little, the last thing any of us want to do is to find it stressful. In this article, I hope to give you some useful tips so you can begin your journey with the Overcoming MS diet, and undertake your first trip to the supermarket with confidence!

Navigating the supermarket

It’s true what they say about sticking to the outside aisles in the supermarket. This helps you fill your trolley with the most nutrient-dense foods, as this is where the fridges and freezers are whilst many processed foods, snacks and confectionary tend to be in the central aisles. Buying frozen fruit and vegetables is a great way to ensure you can stock up without wasting food, and is often cheaper without compromising on nutritional value. It can be a time-saver too, as many bags of frozen fruits and vegetables are already chopped and prepared.

Replace dairy as a first step

Replacing dairy can be daunting for some. One of the first steps I recommend is to try all those wonderful dairy-free alternatives now available. Whether you decide to go cold-turkey on dairy produce and cut it out overnight or whether you are removing it gradually, you will certainly need to experiment with plant-based alternatives.

With regards to taste, there doesn’t seem to be a big difference between the fresh or the long-life plant-based milks, so if you are watching your budget, I suggest starting with long-life cartons. Almond and hemp milk is thinner and lighter than oat milk which has a comforting porridge-like flavour; soy milk is also a bit thicker but with a more neutral flavour. If you like to have milk in your tea or coffee or on breakfast cereals, consider how much flavour you want the milk to bring. I have found that hazelnut milk, for instance, adds a lovely nutty taste to my morning coffee! It’s a question of trial and error and finding what works for you.

Replacing cheese may be more challenging since many dairy-free products contain coconut oil, also not recommended on the Overcoming MS program (saturated fat), for example the Violife range. It could be that in order to reduce dairy, to begin with you include these occasionally. There is, however, a fantastic almond milk based range of cheese and yoghurts made by Nush that are worth finding. Dairy-free yoghurt is great food to add to smoothies, breakfast muesli, and can act as a general substitute for cream in sauces, for example. Look for these soya-based alternatives to make your dairy-free cooking easy.

Simple swaps

One of the easiest swaps is switching dairy foods for the diverse choice of plant-based alternatives as mentioned above. But apart from that, what else should you look for?

If you are not ready to give up meat just yet, can you commit to only consuming white turkey or chicken breast instead (skinless). You can buy fillets whole or minced, ready to replace beef in a bolognaise, pork in meatballs, or lamb in a shepherd’s pie. White meat is after all, much lower in saturated fat.

If giving up chocolate is too much right now, can you switch to a dark chocolate with 70% or more cocoa solids? This chocolate will be rich in antioxidants, dairy-free and lower in sugar content than traditional milk chocolate.

If salty snacks like crisps are your weakness, you can switch to salted popcorn which is higher in fibre and lower in saturated fat than crisps.

If the idea of oily fish three times a week is one you need to build up to, can you try introducing white fish or shellfish more often? A prawn stir-fry instead of chicken; baked seabass instead of lamb chops; chunky cod skewers instead of pork or lamb skewers; a spaghetti vongole rather than a spaghetti bolognaise? All of these are good alternatives.

If you are wandering down the confectionary or snack aisle musing about biscuits and pastries, perhaps put some dried fruit like pineapple, pear, mango or apple slices into your basket instead. Dates are great for a sweet fix too, as they are full of fibre, antioxidants and trace minerals. Making a trail mix from dried fruits and raw nuts is a good swap for less healthy snack-time foods.

Check food labels

Do take time to look at the food labels of any processed foods you buy; check brands against each other to find the product with the fewest ingredients. Processed foods often contain many food chemicals we simply don’t need and may even be unhealthy for us. Stick to those brands that use a greater proportion of real food for flavour and texture rather than relying on artificial additives to do so.

Also, checking the fat content – specifically the SATURATED fat content – will help you choose smarter. It’s best that you aim to avoid those products that offer more than a gram of saturated fat per serving.

Ready, Steady, Go!

Remember, whether you prefer to jump straight in with multiple overnight changes to your shopping list or whether you need to take things more slowly and introduce change gradually, the fact is you are beginning your Overcoming MS journey which is what really matters. Take the approach that will be the easiest for you to ensure your long-term commitment. There is little point trying to take on too much too quickly if this will be a source of stress. As I’m sure you know, stress is a damaging contributor to your MS symptoms, so be sure to take the approach that is right for you.