MS Diet Study Results


A few years back I talked with researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University, where they were recruiting people with MS to participate in a study looking at the role of diet in this disease. It was a very appealing study, with funding from the National MS Society, and involved trips to the west coast to meet with the researchers as well as a stay at a special diet spa in California. What could be so bad about this chance to contribute to research and visit a spa?

When I talked with the researchers the bad news was they were needing people who would commit to a vegan diet if they were randomly assigned to the diet arm of the study. I’m not a huge fan of vegetables but could get by but I can’t imagine life without my favorite dairy products of ice cream and butter so I excused myself from the pool of possible study subjects, but I did share information about this study with other people and don’t know if any of them were able to participate.

This particular study was meant to once and for all check the science behind the McDougall Diet,  which is a variation of the  Swank Diet.

"The study investigated the effects of following a diet called the McDougall Diet, devised by John McDougall, M.D. The diet is partly based on an MS-fighting diet developed in the 1940s and 1950s by the late Roy Swank, M.D., a former head of the division of neurology at OHSU. The McDougall diet, very low in saturated fat, focuses on eating starches, fruits and vegetables and does not include meat, fish or dairy products," according to information on the researcher's site. 

Until this time there had not been a comprehensive study done on either the McDougall or the Swank Diet to either prove or disprove this diet approach for MS. I was very excited to know that once and for all, we might have some form of scientific proof.

I didn’t immediately see that this was the same study I found referenced in the recent headlines and I was ready to rejoice when I read that a low-fat diet did not make multiple sclerosis better. As I already mentioned, making the necessary changes to my diet to be plant-based and low fat would mean eliminating almost everything I do eat and replacing it with other less desirable food items. Then when I accessed the study, Low-fat, plant-based diet in multiple sclerosis: A randomized controlled trial, I made the connection that this was one and the same that was looking for proof for to build on the anecdotal work of the Swank Diet.

This study had two groups- the one that was assigned to the diet for a year, along with the benefits of going to the spa for training in healthy food, and the control group which continued with their regular diet for a year. Don’t feel too sorry for the control group, they were offered the opportunity to go to the health spa after the study concluded, so they got the best of both worlds, if you ask me.

So what did this comprehensive look at the McDougall diet show? Following this diet of beans, breads, corn, pastas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and rice with the addition of fruits and non-starchy vegetables and absolutely no meat, fish, eggs, dairy products or vegetable oils made no difference to the MRI evidence of disease activity or the relapse rate.

The study also proved what I have also said all along about diet and MS– we should all eat healthier, and we will benefit from those changes. The group that followed the diet showed improvement in their body mass index, lipid counts for cholesterol, total cholesterol and blood glucose levels. The people on the special diet also reported an improvement in their fatigue levels. So yes, they did improve their health in other ways but it didn’t change their MS.

There will still be many who choose to not believe the results – but the study showed the plant based diet  made no difference for MS. Thanks to this study, I can check my guilt at the door and choose to keep my ice cream and butter if I want. Or at least until I have think about my cholesterol and sugar levels.1

Wishing you well,


Note: This is a corrected version of this article describing the study results where I had initially identified the wrong diet. This study looked at the McDougall Diet, building on the institution's previous work with the Swank Diet. My apologies for the error.  -Laura


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