Step 1 of the OMS 7-Step Recovery Program focuses on diet. Find answers to your questions about meat, dairy, flaxseed oil supplementation and more.
The Swank Diet is a low saturated fat diet which has been found to majorly improve the health of people with MS. It is based on Professor Roy Swank’s 34-year study between 1949 and 1983 which assessed the impact of the diet on 150 PwMS. It found that, for people with MS, there is a positive link between limiting saturated fat intake to 15g per day and fewer relapses, less disability and improved quality of life. Find more detail in our Diet section.
People with MS should be careful when cooking with oil, as high temperatures can alter the oil’s structure, forming harmful toxic products. This is particularly the case when frying with oil, as the temperature of the pan gets to very high levels. Frying with oil should be avoided if possible. If not possible, oil should be kept to a minimum amount, and water should be added to lower its temperature. Oil is not needed for stir-frying, as during this type of cooking, the oil can be substituted for water, soy or oyster sauce. However, people with MS can consume food with oil in it that has been baked. This is because baking uses a lower heat than frying, and takes place over a longer period - therefore, the oils do not break down in the same way. Just remember that you should bake with extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil can never be heated.
Yes, all types of alcohol are OK in moderation for people with MS. Moderation means not more than two standard drinks a day, with at least two alcohol-free days a week. Alcohol in excess is harmful to health, and moderation is required for reasons other than MS.
There are no specific restrictions about caffeine included in the OMS Recovery Program. However you should follow standard health advice about consumption of caffeine - 'in 2015 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published their Scientific Opinion on the Safety of Caffeine, advising that caffeine intakes from all sources up to 400 mg per day and single doses of 200mg do not raise safety concerns for adults in the general population.' Read more here.
There is no compelling evidence linking sugar to worsening MS symptoms, however through following a plant-based diet most people naturally reduce the amount of sugar they consume. You can follow the standard dietary guidelines (e.g. WHO recommends a maximum of 5 to 10 teaspoons of free sugars per day).
You may want to consider using unrefined sugar such a raw honey, dates, mollases etc.
If you are not intolerant to gluten, it is fine to continue eating gluten when following the OMS Program.
The most severe form of gluten intolerance is celiac disease. Here, people develop serious digestive system disorders due to an immune response to the gluten in wheat. One might expect, if gluten were a key ingredient to avoid in MS, that people with MS might have a higher incidence of celiac disease. Or vice-versa: that people with celiac disease might have a higher incidence of MS. However the data from several studies shows that there is not a higher incidence of celiac disease in those with MS or vice-versa.
Additionally, there is no clear biochemical similarity between part of the gluten compound and myelin, as far as we are aware. Finally when we run the epidemiological cross-check, populations that consume wheat do not appear to have a higher incidence of MS than other populations.
Weight loss is a common issue for people with multiple sclerosis when they start the Overcoming MS Recovery Program.
The transition from a diet that is high in saturated fats and processed foods to one that is whole food plant-based can have a big impact. Although it is important to reduce saturated fat intake, we should not cut out fats altogether as they perform many important functions in the body.
Instead, we should change the type of fats we consume. Avoid saturated fats which usually come from animal products such as meat and dairy. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are good sources of healthy fat and can be consumed approximately three times per week. Look to consume plant-based sources of fat such as avocado and nuts on a regular basis as well as taking 20-40ml of flaxseed oil daily.
People with MS should also take care to maintain a regular level of carbohydrate intake, as reducing this can lead to weight loss. Wholegrain rice and wholegrain pasta are recommended sources of carbohydrates.
If in doubt, registered dieticians can provide detailed information and help put together a balanced way forward.When you start the OMS program, you will lose a little weight and then after a while this will usually stabilize as your body becomes used to the diet.
No, people with multiple sclerosis should not consume dark chocolate. The problem with chocolate is the cocoa butter, which is very high in saturated fat. Worse, there is an allowable limit of 15% altered fats in cocoa butter. If you want to add some chocolate flavour to a recipe try cacoa nibs - are small pieces of crushed cocao beans which can add an intense chocolate flavour to recipes or high-flavonoid (70-85%) cocoa/cacoa powder.
Often hailed as a healthy oil in the media, coconut products actually contain a high percentage of saturated fat, which are excluded on the OMS program. A key issue with saturated fats is their melting point. If the melting point of a fat is above body temperature (37 C), then it will essentially behave in body cell membranes like a solid fat, making the cell membranes rigid, inflexible and sticky, thereby encouraging degeneration and inflammation. The common fats in coconut are lauric acid (with a melting point of 44.2 C) myristic acid (53.9 C) and palmitic acid (63.2 C). These fats are solid at body temperature and are likely to significantly worsen MS. We do not recommend them in any quantity. Instead, consume monounsaturated oils such as extra virgin olive oil.
It is not recommended to consume low fat dairy products on the OMS program as they still contains dairy – therefore butrophilin – the protein in cows milk which we advise avoiding if you have MS. Replace dairy products instead with plant-based alternatives such as soy, oat or almond. Processed 'low fat' products often have added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients, it is better to consume food that are naturally low in fat.
Lactose-free milk is a dairy milk which has added lactase, and is made for people who lack the enzyme that breaks down lactose, which can cause lactose intolerance. It is not recommended to consume ‘lactose-free’ milk on the OMS program as it still contains dairy – therefore butrophilin – the protein in cows milk which we advise avoiding if you have MS. Replace dairy products instead with plant-based alternatives such as soy, oat or almond milk.
No. Cow, goat and sheep milk all appear to contain the same offending protein, butyrophilin, which causes harm to the immune system. Research has found that proteins in a range of animal milks similar to bovine butyrophilin (reference below).
Reference: Heid HW, Winter S, Bruder G, Keenan TW, Jarasch ED. Butyrophilin, an apical plasma membrane-associated glycoprotein characteristic of lactating mammary glands of diverse species. Biochim Biophys Acta 1983;728:228-38
There are many good sources of calcium encouraged in the OMS diet including: fish where you eat the bones, nuts, green leafy vegetables, fortified non-dairy drinks, tofu, tahini, pulses and dried fruits. Provided you are eating a balanced diet, you should be able to get the 700mg recommended per day for adults 19 to 64.
One problem with calcium in Western societies is the lack of sunlight. Sunlight results in vitamin D being produced in the body, and vitamin D's main job is to absorb calcium from the diet. With adequate vitamin D from sun or supplements, there is no problem with inadequate calcium. Osteoporosis is also unlikely for people who get enough vitamin D.
For butter you can get a similar rich flavor and texture from plant-based oil or even mashed bananas. As a rule, substitute oil for butter in recipes – especially those that instruct you to melt the butter first.
Use 82% oil for the butter called for in a recipe and add some kind of binding agent (a tbsp. of rice flour or ground flax seeds).
For sweeter recipes like muffins, use a fruit or vegetable puree (eg: apple puree) as a replacement for the butter. Measure equal quantities.
The conclusion of Roy Swank’s study was that people with MS should not consume more than 10-15 g of saturated fat per day. The Overcoming MS program is designed so that you don’t have to count though. By eating a wholefood, plant-based diet plus seafood and avoiding meat, dairy and processed foods, you won’t be over the limit.
Legumes, including soy, are extremely healthy foods and are full of protein. Consuming legumes is useful for people not eating animal products.
They have been used for centuries by many societies, and there is no clear documentation of any health problems associated with their use. Some have suggested that people with immune-based diseases should avoid them, but there appears to be no strong basis for this suggestion.
Soy in particular would appear to have many advantages over dairy products, and most studies suggest better health outcomes for those consuming soy products regularly.
This is actually not an exact science and is quite complex. Our recommendations come from a synthesis of many sources. Omega-3s are helpful in MS in two ways:
- In a structural way, in forming part of the body's cell membranes and making them more pliable and soft (due to their low melting points)
- In an immune way, as they are the precursors of the cytokines and eicosanoids that the immune system Th2 cells secrete to dampen down inflammation
If one is eating an ultra-low saturated fat diet, as with the OMS program, it doesn't take much omega-3 to get a structural benefit; i.e. an improvement in the pliability and resilience of cell membranes. It takes quite a bit more to get the optimal immune benefit.
That is why the standard dose (often recommended by specialists) of 3g a day of fish oil is inadequate; it doesn't really provide the immune system benefit. In studies where they have measured the dose of omega-3s to get the optimal immune benefit, they have used standard-strength fish oil.This has 120mg DHA and 180mg EPA in each 1,000mg (1g, or 1ml) capsule (i.e., a total of 300mg DHA/EPA combined).
The studies suggest that a dose of around 20g (20 ml or 20 capsules) of standard-strength fish oil gives you the optimal immune benefit.
You can of course get refined fish oil where these constituents (the actual total omega-3s DHA and EPA) are concentrated, and so this dose needs to be adjusted accordingly.
If for instance a super-strength fish oil had 240mg DHA and 360mg EPA in each capsule, you would need to take only 10 capsules.
The calculation for flaxseed oil is much more complicated, as it contains ALA, which is converted in the body to DHA and EPA, but the percentage conversion varies from person to person (see pages 288-290 in the OMS book).
To simplify matters, we recommend the same dose (20mls)
One of the issues with all oil supplements is that they contain saturated fat; fish oil contains around 30% and flaxseed oil around 9%.
The figure of 20 mls (20g, 20 capsules) of standard fish or flaxseed oil we recommend is a minimum to achieve the immune benefits, but more can be taken, particularly if oil intake from other sources is very limited. The body really does need some oil, and people can get dry skin and hair and lose energy if there is too little fat in the diet. If you feel you need more oil, then increase your flaxseed oil dose, because it contains the least saturated fat.
Many people prefer to stop counting, and they just use flaxseed oil regularly on their pasta, baked potatoes, salads, etc. (after cooking of course).
It is quite delicious used in this way once you are used to it. In reality, people probably get more like 30-40mls/day using flaxseed oil in this way, and that is still in accordance with the OMS program, and may well result in more energy as well as a potent structural and anti-inflammatory effect.
Also known as linseed oil, flaxseed oil is a plant-based source of omega-3 and is the preferred source of omega-3 supplementation on the OMS Recovery Program. Ideally, cold-pressed flaxseed oil should be purchased as it is likely to be more fresh than flaxseed capsules. Flaxseed oil can be used as a salad or pasta dressing and can also be added to smoothies or taken by the spoonful. OMS recommends 20 - 40 ml per day.
It should be added after food is cooked, not heated directly during cooking as this damages the nutritional properties of the oil. It is best stored in a fridge, and should be used within six weeks of purchase.
You can tell when it has gone out of date when it develops a slight bitter taste. It can be frozen and then defrosted slowly in the fridgeAlso known as linseed oil, flaxseed oil is a product that is highly-recommended as part of the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis diet.
A key part of the OMS diet is encouraging omega-3 intake and cutting down omega-6 to reduce inflammation.
Taking up to 3,000–5,000 mg of omega-3 per day appears to be safe. Remember that most sources of omega-3 will contain other types of fats, therefore you should limit the amount you have to reduce intake of these other fats.
Omega-3 rich foods include oily fish and flaxseed supplements. We recommend a maximum amount of flaxseed oil of about 40 ml per day (about three tablespoons) and recommend eating oily fish no more than 3 times a week.
You would be able to use freshly ground flaxseed but would have to increase the volume to get the same amount of omega 3. We recommend 20 to 40 ml of flaxseed oil (which is approximately two tablespoons).You would need to have approximately 4 - 6 tablespoons of ground flaxseed per day to get the same benefits and it would need to be freshly ground. Increasing the amount of fibre in your diet dramatically may impact your digestive system.
People with MS should consume between 20ml and 40ml (approximately one to two tablespoons) of flaxseed oil per day.
Yes. Our recommendation is to take 20-40ml of flaxseed oil each day as the most efficient way of obtaining omega-3 requirement.
It is best to use therapies that have been shown in trials to be helpful in MS, or that have shown equivalence with such therapies in well-designed clinical trials. For the New Zealand green-lipped mussel extract (Lyprinol), it is too early to tell, as most studies are in experimental models rather than patients, but the effect is likely to be small.
Yes. There is a lot of discussion about whether flaxseed oil is “as good” as fish oil.
Given that our oceans are gradually becoming more polluted, particularly with heavy metals like mercury, and that heavy metals are known to cause neurological problems, it would be good if a plant-based oil like flaxseed oil could provide all our omega-3 needs.
The problem is that the fatty acid in flaxseed oil, alpha linolenic acid (ALA), needs to be converted in the body to the fish oil fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and then docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
There are various figures put on this conversion, mostly up to 10% of it being converted, dependent on general health, saturated fat consumption, alcohol consumption, and a number of other variables.
Udo Erasmus in his book “Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill” does a good calculation on this. Erasmus quotes a figure of 2.7% per day of the ALA being converted to EPA.
He says that this figure is likely to be higher for people getting all the essential nutrients from diet and supplements.
As most people's fat deposits contain about 2% ALA (quite a bit higher for those following the diet and supplements here), this is about 200g of ALA, which could make about 5,400mg of EPA (as there is 180mg EPA in a 1,000mg capsule of fish oil, this is equivalent to about 30 of the 1,000mg capsules of fish oil).
If there is no ALA in your fat deposits at all (if you had been taking no omega-3s in your diet whatsoever), then just taking two tablespoons of flaxseed oil would supply enough ALA to make about 378mg of EPA, equivalent to what is in two 1,000mg fish oil capsules.
But as can be seen from the above calculation of body stores, most people have enough stored, if they are supplementing every day, to make quite adequate amounts of EPA and DHA.
The advantage of doing it this way, rather than taking it as fish oil, is related not only to chemical toxins like mercury in fish oil (and to questions about the sustainability of our fish stocks), but also to the fact that EPA made this way is fresher, in the body every day.
Another bonus: there is minimal saturated fat intake this way, as fish oil contains quite a bit of saturated fat. I prefer to take two dessert spoons of flaxseed oil a day (20mls) on the days when I don't eat oily fish.
For optimal health, it is important to have both omega-3 and omega-6. These are essential fatty acids; health cannot be sustained without them. The right omega-6 to omega-3 balance ranges from about 2:1 to 4:1. This is much lower than the current ratio in our society of about 16:1 up to 25:1. It is the higher ratio that promotes inflammation.
This is a complex subject. The protein butyrophilin is a component of the membrane of the fat globules in cow's milk. Closely related proteins are found in the fat globule membranes of the milk of many other species (goat, sheep, etc.).
It is one of the proteins that has been implicated in molecular mimicry in MS causation, along with BSA (bovine serum albumin). BSA is also found in the muscle of cows (beef), along with proteins similar in structure to butyrophilin. It is not clear whether butyrophilin in the milk of other species or butyrophilin-like proteins from muscle are potentially involved in MS causation, as only butyrophilin from cow's milk has been studied in laboratory research.
However, on balance it seems wise to avoid the milk of animals other than humans. The principal reason to avoid meat in MS is because the saturated fat content of meat, although not specifically studied to date, contains proteins like BSA and butyrophilin-like proteins, which may also be an issue. We hope that helps make sense of a complex issue.
Because, knowing that saturated fat is a real problem for people with MS, why take any in at all if you can avoid it? After a while, most people don't miss meat at all.
Although skinless chicken is low in saturated fat and allowed on the Swank Diet, it is not recommended on the OMS Recovery Program. The idea is to move away from eating animal products (as well as altered fats and so on) and to change your way of eating. It is important to change completely or otherwise the risk is that chicken ends up being on the table at every meal or chicken is placed on a pedestal as being a special treat. While the actual risk from an occasional piece of skinless chicken breast is low, the more frequently it is eaten the higher the risk. If you are worried about getting enough protein, there is an article by the Medical Journal of Australia that is worth reading - click here.
Yes, people with multiple sclerosis can eat any seafood. Fish, scallops, lobster, prawns, crab, calamari, mussels, oysters, clams, crayfish – they’re all OK. However, be careful when cooking with oil - frying with oil should strictly be avoided. For more information, see 'MS cooking and oils' on this page.
It is fine to eat fish every day on the OMS Recovery Program - we do however recommend limiting oily fish to three times a week (depending on quantity) and then either shellfish or white fish on the other days.
The oceans are increasingly polluted, particularly with heavy metals like mercury. Mercury is concentrated in the flesh of bigger fish that eat smaller fish. So in general the higher up the food chain the fish is, the more mercury it will contain (e.g. shark, swordfish or king mackerel). In some parts of the world, eating shark is banned because of the very high levels of mercury it contains. In smaller fish like sardines, there is much less of a problem. Some people feel it is safer to get omega-3 from flaxseed oil and limit their fish consumption.
Gelatin is not a problem in relation to MS. While it is an animal product, it contains no saturated fat. However, some people are either allergic to the capsules or have ethical concerns, so they may try to source non-gelatin products, which tend to be more expensive and less widely available.
Iron is found in a variety of vegetables therefore there is sufficient iron in the OMS diet to keep most people from getting anaemic, Vitamin C can enhance iron absorption from your food, therefore in vegetarian and vegan diets, iron absorption may be optimized by including vegetables containing vitamin C during meals. it is also advised to avoid consuming tea or coffee near meals as they contain polyphenols which can inhibit iron absorption. Women with heavy periods are at greater risk of an iron deficiency. It is possible to get tested by your doctor for iron deficiency, if suspected. If you have low iron, a natural herbal iron replacement like Floradix is recommended.
There is evidence from animal models of MS that fasting may be helpful. It has been shown to reduce inflammation and be neuro-protective in two animal studies.
One study in humans has been published. This looked at the effects of fasting on people with MS (PwMS) who fasted for one month (Ramadan). In this short (one month) study fasting didn't improve fatigue but was associated with a higher quality of life.
Overall it looks promising. As there are no detailed studies in PwMS yet, restricting calories as per 5:2 guidelines seems reasonable – keeping in mind to keep to the OMS diet.
Here are a few links for further reading:
Dr Jonathan White explains the differences between the OMS Recovery Program and the Paleo diet in the video below.
All nuts except peanuts are advocated by the OMS Recovery Program. They are a great source of protein and healthier fats, especially walnuts, which have the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids. When purchasing nuts, you should be aware that they may be covered or roasted in oil and plenty of salt. Raw, unroasted nuts are preferable. Brazil nuts, macadamias and cashew nuts contain more saturated fat than other nuts and thus should be consumed in smaller quantitiesNuts are a very popular food around the world, but people with multiple sclerosis should be careful before deciding to consume them.
Most people find that they feel better by changing their eating habits to OMS recommendations, but the real effect is on reducing the rate of relapses. This only becomes clear with time. It took people in Swank's study three to five years to stabilize on the diet, that is, to get their relapse rates down to a minimum, although there was a big difference by about nine to 12 months.