I met Ann during my Wellness Coach training program at the Mayo Clinic. She’s in her late 40s, with long, dark hair and a beautiful smile. She shared with us her motivation to become a wellness coach: to help people with multiple sclerosis (MS) reduce their symptoms through diet. Why was she passionate about this? Because Ann herself has MS and has been keeping it at bay since her diagnosis seven years ago, she believes, due to the change in her diet.

The Swank MS Diet

The possibility that Ann’s diet change was positively impacting her MS didn’t shock me. The evidence shows that our diet is by far the leading risk factor for disease (see here and here). Ahead of smoking, even. Soon after Ann was diagnosed she learned through the research findings of neurologist Dr. Roy Swank that eating a diet very low in saturated fat may help, and she was motivated to give it a try. However, her neurologist had other ideas, and wanted her to start medication. They made a deal: Ann would try the diet, but if her MS symptoms flared, she’d take medication. Ann’s commitment to her diet and her neurologist’s oversight have made them a great team. Both continue to be impressed by the results!

What’s the Evidence?

Dr. Swank first started thinking that diet may impact MS because MS is more prevalent in populations that eat more meat. And our risk drops when we move to a low-risk region, and vice versa. And so began his 50+ years of research examining the connection between diet and MS.  

His 1990 publication in The Lancet journal indicated, “144 multiple sclerosis patients took a low-fat diet for 34 years. For each of three categories of neurological disability (minimum, moderate, severe) patients who adhered to the prescribed diet (less than or equal to 20 g fat/day) showed significantly less deterioration and much lower death rates than did those who consumed more fat than prescribed (greater than 20 g fat/day).” Furthermore, he writes, “The greatest benefit was seen in those with minimum disability at the start of the trial; in this group, when those who died from non-MS diseases were excluded from the analysis, 95% survived and remained physically active.” Thirty-four years later! Given that MS is known as a chronic, progressive and debilitating disease, this is quite remarkable.

These findings are also noteworthy given that the expensive MS medications currently on the market, “offer relatively good safety but only moderate efficacy” per this report. Even their moderate efficacy seems to be questionable (see here).

Sources of Saturated Fat

Meat and dairy are the main sources of saturated fat. So the Swank diet has limitations around those. It also strives to eliminate processed foods. It encourages fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. You can review the details of the diet here.

The Power of Plants

The healthiest and longest living populations in the world are plant-based (see here). I love that while we wait for gold-standard clinical trial evidence to build for the health benefits of plant-based eating, and for the medical community to get on board, there are no negative side effects from eating a healthier diet. If you are under the care of a physician, certainly consult with her. Perhaps you’ll surprise her someday with your progress, just like Ann surprised her neurologist.