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Maintaining a Healthy Weight With MS

Updated on March 22, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Max Mugambi

  • People with multiple sclerosis (MS) are at a higher risk of weight gain.
  • Managing a healthy weight is important for people with MS, as it helps improve symptoms like fatigue and daytime sleepiness.
  • The two most effective ways of managing your weight with MS are proper diet and regular exercise.

Maintaining a healthy weight can feel like an uphill battle with multiple sclerosis. MS symptoms often make exercise difficult, and the side effects of medications used to treat MS can contribute to weight gain.

But it’s not impossible. There are several ways of maintaining a healthy body weight with MS, including eating a balanced diet and getting regular physical activity. In many cases, these lifestyle habits can help improve the symptoms of MS.

MS and Weight Gain

Members of MyMSTeam frequently discuss weight management and weight gain associated with MS. “I keep gaining weight since my MS symptoms have increased, and my activity has decreased,” shared one member. Another member wrote, “I’m trying to lose weight, but I’m on steroids, so it makes it twice as difficult.”

Many people with MS are looking for answers on the cause of their weight gain. One member of MyMSTeam asked, “What can I do? I try not to eat bad foods. I can’t exercise. I am exhausted just walking to the bathroom.”

What Causes Weight Gain in MS?

People with MS can have weight fluctuations in both directions: you can either lose or gain weight as a result of the disease. A number of factors can contribute to this, including anxiety, limited mobility, and medication side effects.

Comfort Eating

Anxiety, stress, and depression can lead you to eat for comfort, which could eventually cause you to gain weight. Depression can also make some people eat less than normal, leading to weight loss.

Physical Disabilities and Limited Mobility

MS-related symptoms like fatigue and spasticity can make it difficult to engage in physical activity. Over time, this can lead to an inactive lifestyle, which may result in weight gain.

MS can also cause physical disability that may prevent someone from doing activities that would otherwise help them maintain their weight. However, physical disabilities can also contribute to weight loss and malnutrition. For example, swallowing difficulties could prevent you from eating properly. Similarly, fatigue and spasticity can also cause weight loss by preventing you from consuming the food your body needs.

Malnutrition may go unnoticed, as some of its symptoms — such as muscle weakness and fatigue — are also symptoms of MS.

Treatments for MS

Medications used to treat MS, such as steroids, can also have the side effect of weight gain.

Some people taking certain disease-modifying therapies have reported weight gain or weight loss they believe to be due to the medication. However, there is no evidence at this time that weight changes are a side effect of these drugs. It’s possible that other factors, such as physical inactivity, may instead contribute to these weight fluctuations.

Benefits of Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Weight management is crucial for people living with MS. Being overweight can exacerbate the symptoms of MS and put you at risk of other problems, including:

  • Pressure sores
  • Joint stress
  • Overexertion of the heart and lungs
  • Other health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure

Strategies for Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Members of MyMSTeam frequently discuss losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight as a way to manage MS symptoms and lower the risk for other health conditions. Here are some of the strategies they’ve used, as well as some techniques recommended by health professionals.

Diet

Eating a balanced diet is important to everyone trying to manage their weight, but is especially important for people with MS. As one MyMSTeam member explained, “The one and only way I have found to lose weight is to become very aware of what you are putting in your mouth.” Other members have shared strategies to limit their sugar intake or adopt low-carb or ketogenic diet plans.

It’s important to keep in mind that current studies on diets thought to have MS benefits, such as plant-based, low saturated fat, paleo, or Mediterranean diets, report mixed results. Most of these diets have not been subjected to rigorous, controlled studies.

Physicians who specialize in MS generally recommend following the same low-fat, high-fiber diets the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society suggest for the general population.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, a healthy diet includes:

  • Whole grains
  • A variety of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Lean proteins, such as skinless poultry, fish, and beans
  • Healthy fats, including soybean oil and sunflower oil

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society also recommends avoiding trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils) and limiting salt, saturated fats, and added sugars.

Be sure to talk to your doctor or MS specialist before starting any new dietary plans. They may refer you to a dietitian, who can devise a plan to help you maintain a healthy weight.

Exercise

For those who can exercise, physical activity is an effective way of maintaining a healthy weight. But people living with MS often have to put in extra effort to get regular exercise. As one MyMSTeam member shared, “I try to get 10,000 steps a day, even if it isn’t pretty. And often it isn’t.”

Start with exercises that are not too physically taxing, and gradually move up to more challenging activities. “I did water aerobics/swimming to start, then I moved on to walking the treadmill,” shared one MyMSTeam member.

Exercise plays an important role in helping to relieve MS symptoms. After beginning an exercise regimen, one MyMSTeam member happily reported, “My right weaker leg does not drag or get ‘floppy’ as often as it used to.” Yoga, pilates, and strength training can help with balance and improve mood as well.

MyMSTeam members have also shared tips on finding exercises that work for those who use wheelchairs. One member wrote, “Picture what you can do while sitting in your chair. Try curling some weights. You can use a book to act as your weight.” Another member found a wheelchair exercise routine developed by the U.K.-based MS Society.

Fatigue, which can be a barrier to exercise and weight management, is a concern for some MyMSTeam members. “I’m trying to lose weight, but I can’t exercise anymore because it knocks me out for days,” wrote one member. However, exercise can help fight fatigue. As another member shared, “I go to the gym three times a week, and I find that helps a lot with my exhaustion.”

Getting started with exercise can be difficult, even for people who aren’t living with MS. One MyMSTeam member found exercising first thing in the morning to be the best way to get around her fatigue. Other members suggest starting out with the least demanding exercises and adding more activity as you improve.

That said, be patient with yourself as you try to reach and maintain a healthy weight. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Take it one day at a time,” one member reminded a teammate.

Find Your Support System for MS

MyMSTeam is the social network for people living with MS and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 164,000 members come together to share their experiences and offer support to others.

Do you struggle with weight management because of your MS? Do you have tips for healthy eating or exercising? MyMSTeam is the perfect place to share your experiences or ask for advice. Join today and share your thoughts in the comments below, or start the conversation on MyMSTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Max Mugambi is a copywriter at MyHealthTeam with more than five years of experience writing about a diverse range of subjects. Learn more about him here.

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