Dairy Products and MS: Are They Harmful?

Everyone who has multiple sclerosis (MS) is urged to limit the saturated fat in their diet. This is because it’s thought that there might be a link between MS and dairy products containing high amounts of saturated fatty acids.

These are common types of saturated fats found in food, especially animal sources:

stearic acid, palmitic acid, myristic acid, lauric acid, and butyric acid. Dairy contains all five of these fatty acids. Some people think they make MS worse by increasing inflammation throughout the body – resulting in more symptoms.

This means that foods like full-fat milk, cream cheese, spreads made with butter or other types of fat (like margarine), ice cream or other frozen dairy desserts, cheese and all types of processed meats (like lunchmeats) are all on the list of “foods to avoid” in a multiple sclerosis diet.

Some studies have shown that dairy intake may adversely affect disease status or relapse rate in people with MS. However, there’s no conclusive evidence linking either saturated fat or dairy products to MS itself.

Other studies have found no relationship between dairy product consumption and increased relapse rates in people with MS. Additionally, when researchers tracked the dietary habits of more than 1 million middle-aged women for about 20 years they hardly saw any changes at all in their rates of developing MS – even though many reduced or eliminated their intake of full-fat and other dairy products over that time.

The bottom line:

If you have MS, don’t go overboard in avoiding dairy products. It’s OK to eat them – in moderation – as long as you’re not having any serious problems with your diet. That means eating low-fat or fat-free dairy instead of the full-fat kind when possible and taking care not to overdo it on high-calorie foods like ice cream or cheese.

Check labeling carefully for “hidden” dairy ingredients, including casein (milk protein), lactose (milk sugar), and milk fat (butter). Often, they are found in processed foods like pastries, bread, breakfast cereals, ready-made meals, and pickles. Butter is also used to cook certain types of commercially prepared or packaged foods, such as popcorn and pastry dough.

Also, some people with MS report that their symptoms may worsen if they eat a lot of dairy products at one time. This is sometimes called the “dairy bar effect,” because it’s similar to how eating a candy bar may make you feel on edge or hyperactive. This doesn’t mean that dairy makes your disease worse on the whole – only that it might be tough for you to handle in large quantities at specific times.

In general, though, cutting back on milk and milk products from the diet isn’t going to help anyone with MS feel better faster. Still, eliminating all of them without a good reason can lead to nutritional deficiencies over time. For example:

Dairy is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, and protein – especially if you choose low-fat options. That’s important because people with MS are more likely to be deficient in these nutrients than the general population.

For example, one study found that 74% of women who have been diagnosed with MS were deficient in vitamin D compared to just 17% of female controls. Likewise, another study showed that 77% of women with MS had inadequate intakes of calcium compared to 18% of control subjects.

And here’s an interesting twist:

Some research suggests that high calcium intake may reduce your risk for developing multiple sclerosis or having a relapse! This might be related to how calcium regulates cell metabolism and inflammation throughout the body. One study found that calcium supplementation (1,200 mg/day) may slow the disease progression of people with early-stage MS.

On the other hand, high-protein diets may cause some people with MS to experience too many problems with muscle spasticity. If you fall into this category, consider reducing your intake of meat and dairy products while increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables.

This will help you get more of the nutrients and vitamins your body needs without triggering too many spasticity problems.

Talking with a registered dietitian (RD) may also be helpful to determine what changes you can make to your eating habits that will let you meet all of your nutritional requirements while minimizing any dairy-related or dietary fat-related effects on your disease status or energy level.

Medical Nutrition Therapy consultations are available through local hospital systems, medical schools, and other health care providers who have a special interest in nutrition support for people with chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cancer.

You can usually check if they provide this service by calling and asking the following:

“Do you offer Medical Nutrition Therapy consultation?” If so, ask if they accept insurance if you have it. If not, you can check with your local MS society to see if they have a list of private practice nutritionists who specialize in working with people living with chronic diseases.

Your doctor may also be able to recommend a registered dietitian or specialist who provides this type of service.

In addition, most universities and medical schools offer continuing education for nurses and other healthcare professionals from the hospital system they’re affiliated with. You might also contact those that are near you as well as those that specialize in meeting the nutritional needs of people living with chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis – especially multiple sclerosis – through their clinical services and/or research initiatives.

When looking for a registered dietitian, ask about his or her training and experience in treating people with multiple sclerosis and other types of chronic diseases. For example, some may have received special training through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to provide care for people living with chronic conditions such as diabetes or cancer.


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