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Swank Diet for Relapsing MS: What You Should Know

Posted on June 20, 2024

No diet can cure multiple sclerosis (MS), but some people who follow the Swank diet say it helps control their symptoms. As one MyMSTeam member wrote, “I’m enjoying the strongest remission I’ve been in for years. I’m so grateful for discovering it.”

Because relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) is marked by periods of flare-ups and stretches with minor or no symptoms, it makes sense to try an eating style with the potential to keep you in remission for longer time periods. Check out a few details about the diet and the research behind it.

What Is the Swank Diet?

Dr. Roy Swank introduced the Swank diet in 1948. After studying communities in different parts of Norway, he discovered a relationship between food patterns and MS rates. Dr. Swank noticed that people on the coast with high fish intake had very low rates of MS compared to those who lived in the mountains and ate mostly meat, milk, and eggs. Based on these different observations in diet, Dr. Swank conducted further research studies and developed a dietary protocol. He used this protocol to treat people with MS at his clinics in the United States and Canada.

The original book written by Dr. Swank is called “The Multiple Sclerosis Diet Book.” Although it’s still a valuable resource, you can get the basics of the diet on the Swank MS Foundation website.

The underlying principle of the Swank diet is a very tight restriction on saturated fat, which is found mainly in bacon, butter, cream, and cheese. While a high intake of saturated fat has been associated with chronic disease risk, this concept wasn’t mainstream during Dr. Swank’s initial research.

What To Avoid on the Swank Diet

Followers of the Swank diet are instructed to eat no more than 15 grams of saturated fat per day. To help achieve this goal, they’re advised to steer clear of processed foods and avoid all red meat (including pork) for the first year of the diet. After one year, dieters are allowed a small portion of 3 ounces of red meat, no more than once a week. Dark meat poultry, egg yolks, and full-fat dairy are also off-limits.

What To Eat on the Swank Diet

The Swank diet encourages unlimited fruits and vegetables, along with plenty of whole-grain bread, rice, and pasta products. The main source of fat in the diet should be unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats. Unsaturated fats can be found in nuts, seeds, and olive oil but are still limited to no more than 20 to 50 grams daily for an overall low-fat diet.

For protein, followers of the diet can eat white meat poultry and whitefish. They’re also allowed dairy products as long as they have 1 percent fat or less. As a daily supplement to the diet, Swank recommends 1 teaspoon of cod liver oil, a multivitamin with minerals, 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C, and 400 international units (IU) of vitamin E.

Research Behind the Swank Diet for RRMS

It’s easy to feel compelled by the success stories and testimonials of people on the Swank diet. But it’s also important to keep in mind that the only verified treatments proven to slow RRMS disease progression are the approved disease-modifying therapies (DMTs). Researchers suspect that maintaining a good nutritional status could slow disease progression, but they don’t have enough scientific evidence to back up that claim for any specific diet or lifestyle changes.

Nonetheless, studies from Advances in Psychiatry and Neurology suggest that people with relapsing MS who follow the Swank diet may have less fatigue. They’re also more likely to have a “high-quality diet” than people who don’t follow a specific plan, meaning they’re getting a good balance of nutritious foods.

Because reducing saturated fat is the primary goal of the Swank diet, it’s helpful to consider the relationship between saturated fat intake and RRMS. Studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with vegetable fats in the diets of children with RRMS lowers their relapse rates. For adults, saturated fat intake has been associated with heart disease, obesity, and inflammation, all of which are concerns for people with RRMS. Finally, following a plant-based diet that’s low in saturated fat improves the quality of life, promotes weight loss, and reduces self-reported symptoms for adults with RRMS after one year (but does not impact disability scores or lesions).

While the Swank diet provides a structured plan for avoiding saturated fat, it’s possible that people with RRMS can experience similar benefits by making more generalized improvements to their diets without following the Swank diet entirely.

Swank Diet Pros and Cons

It’s essential to discuss any plans to change your diet or lifestyle with your health care provider. The Swank diet has been around for several decades, so there’s a good chance your neurologist can give you their professional opinion and guidance if you’d like to try it.

On MyMSTeam, general feelings about the diet seem positive. Members have said:

  • “I followed the Swank Diet for MS (as best I could) for the past 40 years. This includes avoiding saturated fats and taking oils. I take cod liver oil, flax oil, and evening primrose oil. I believe this has helped slow the progression of my MS.”
  • “I follow Swank most of the time. However, when I’m really disciplined and cut all saturated fat, to the barest minimum, it really helps. I even began to get feeling back in my neuropathic feet again!”
  • “I love Doctor Swank. I’ve been on his diet for 47 years, and I’m doing really well. In spite of multiple lesions, you can’t tell I have MS. I bounce back quickly from attacks because of his diet.”

Some criticisms of the Swank diet may be that it’s too expensive or challenging to follow. It can take some time and effort to learn the ins and outs of the diet and get more comfortable reading food labels. As with any strict diet, you may run into trouble when eating out at restaurants or sharing meals that others have prepared.

However, many of the foods on the Swank diet aren’t necessarily more expensive (such as brown rice compared to steaks). And while the diet is strict, it’s not as strict as some diets. If you want, you can have a cocktail or glass of wine with dinner.

It’s possible to get sufficient nutrition on the Swank diet, but the restrictions can make it tricky. Potential deficiencies include the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. In addition, Dr. Swank mentioned that such a low-fat diet might lead to dry skin or fatigue, so you may need to adjust your unsaturated fat intake based on your needs. A registered dietitian can help you monitor your intake and avoid nutrient deficiencies.

Even if you choose not to follow the Swank diet fully, you may find some aspects beneficial, like eating more fruits and vegetables or avoiding processed foods. Ultimately, only you can decide if the sacrifices required by the diet seem worth it. Always talk to your doctor before trying any new eating plan or taking any new supplements.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 213,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.

Do you have a specific MS diet that you swear by? Have you ever tried a diet low in saturated fat? If so, how do you think it affected your MS symptoms? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on June 20, 2024
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    Kathryn Shohara, MS, RDN, LDN, CNSC is a clinical dietitian for adults at Baylor Scott & White Hospitals. Learn more about her here.
    Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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