Having been the subject of MS research for more than 50 years, the Swank diet is likely the most well-known of the many diets suggested for people with multiple sclerosis. Developed in the 1940s, the low-fat diet is named after its inventor, Dr. Roy Swank.
While research has found potential benefits in several different diets, no one diet is favoured over the others. We simply know that some people with MS find following a special diet to be helpful. Individual needs and preferences need to be taken into account before undertaking any diet, though, so it’s a good idea to talk to your GP before settling on a special diet.
The History of the Diet
Swank’s 1940s MS research was originally based in Canada, although he did go on to carry out research in Europe including a survey which he conducted in Norway. His studies concluded that coastal fishing towns tended to have lower prevalence rates for MS, while prevalence in the mountains was much higher.
Dr. Swank found that the people near the coast tended to eat diets rich in fish, while those in the mountains consumed more eggs, dairy and meat. The low-fat Swank diet was developed by Swank alongside dietitian Aagot Grimsgard based on these findings. One of the main features of this diet is that fats, especially saturated fats, are limited. Instead, whole grains, lean fish, fruits, vegetables and non-fat dairy products are promoted.
In 1987, Dr. Swank published a book on his diet.
Guidelines for Following the Swank Diet
Regulating unsaturated fats and reducing saturated fats are the two cornerstones of the Swank diet. Those who follow the diet are allowed between 20 and 50 grammes of unsaturated fats and oils like sunflower, peanut, flaxseed, sesame and olive oil, with 5 grammes equalling around 1 teaspoon. No more than 15g of saturated fats (such as processed oils like vegetable and coconut oil, and animal fats) should be consumed each day.
Reducing saturated fat intake generally means consuming more unsaturated fats, as essential fatty acids are necessary nutrients. For the first year on the diet, pork and red meat are banned. After the first year, people are allowed to eat up to 85 grammes per week of pork or leaner cuts of red meat. Fatty fish like trout, tuna canned in oil and salmon, as well as dark-meat poultry, should be limited to 50g per day, but white fish (flounder, tuna canned in water, haddock and cod) as well as skinless white-meat poultry can be eaten in any amount.
Any dairy products consumed should contain 1% fat or less. Eggs are allowed, but only their whites should be eaten as the yolks are higher in fat. It’s recommended that those following the diet consume around two cups of vegetables and two fruits each day, but these are allowed to be consumed in any amount. Carbohydrates like whole-grain rice, bread and pasta are also welcome.
Mineral supplements, cod liver oil and multi-vitamins are all necessary for those following the diet. In order to maintain a healthy energy level and a good supply of natural oils, nuts and seeds are preferred to sweets when to comes to snacking.
What Function do Fats Have?
Alcohol, protein, carbohydrate and fat are the four main energy-providing components of your food. While proteins and carbohydrates provide, weight for weight, around 4 calories per gram, fats provide a great deal more energy at 9 calories per gram. This goes for both solid fats and liquid oils, all of which can be either unsaturated or saturated. Once consumed, the body breaks fats down into three types of fatty acids: saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Ready meals are a handy substitute for anyone, but they can be especially helpful for those with chronic illnesses. On the Swank diet, individuals are expected to avoid all canned and packaged foods that contain processed (hydrogenated) oils, butter or shortening, as well as those which contain more than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving. While there are ready meals out there that fit the diet, they can be a little hard to find. Make sure you check serving sizes and read all labels before tucking in.
What Do the Doctors Think?
As Swank’s study was small and flawed, the diet has been much disputed within the neurological community.
Research on the role of diet in MS is ongoing, however. The connection between the MS disease process and a person’s gut bacteria is currently being studied, for instance. The growth of certain gut bacteria, according to some research, is promoted by the meat-laden, fatty Western diet, and this appears to contribute to the development of MS and other inflammatory diseases. Anti-inflammatory gut bacteria profiles, meanwhile, are being found in those who eat plant-based, low-fat diets.
Neurological diseases like MS may also benefit from ketogenic and calorie restriction diets, though research into this is still ongoing.
Can Diet Help with MS?
Whatever your feelings about the Swank diet, it’s generally agreed that diet can have a positive impact on some symptoms of multiple sclerosis. No one diet has been proven as an effective treatment for MS, but lots of different diets can have positive effects in different ways.
Proper nutrition through a healthy and balanced diet can lower your risk of developing other disorders and diseases, and can make your MS symptoms easier to deal with. Your end goal needs to be a lifetime of the best health possible for you, and the food you eat plays a big role in that.
For more information about multiple sclerosis, check out Need2Know’s Essential Guide to Multiple Sclerosis which explains what MS is, the symptoms and how it is diagnosed, treatments, other physical complications and how it will affect different areas of a sufferer’s life.