Reading Nutrition Labels for People Living With MS

READING NUTRITION LABELS

Learn the basics to help you find the right food for your MS
From Jessica C.—Dietician

If you’re living with a chronic illness, healthy eating is important. The right choice of foods may help people with multiple sclerosis (MS) with strength, the immune system, and overall wellness. Understanding food labels can help you make better choices. But be sure to work with your doctor or a registered dietician to come up with a diet plan just for you.

First things first: Know your needs

Try to maintain a healthy weight so your body doesn’t have to work harder to carry extra pounds. This may tax the joints and organs and make other health conditions worse. Exercise may help with MS, so eating a balanced diet to help support your physical activity is important. Also, drink plenty of fluids. Discuss with your doctor how to incorporate fiber and protein into your diet.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Calories: The number of calories you eat and drink, combined with how much you exercise, may have a positive effect on your health and your weight. Talk with your doctor or dietician to decide the right amount 
  • Protein: Protein may be an important part of every meal. If you’re very active or elderly, you may need more to help build and maintain muscle 
  • Fiber: 21-38 grams of fiber a day may be good for bowel and heart health. Fiber also makes you feel full. This could make you feel less hungry—and less likely to eat more and gain weight
  • Fat: Consider making unsaturated plant fat the main source of fat in your diet. This includes olive oil, avocado, and nuts. Ask your doctor about omega-3 fatty acids. These are found in fish, eggs, and some nuts and seeds. Limit saturated fat (meat, eggs, and dairy) to less than 16 grams per day. Try to avoid trans fats. They raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol
  • Fluid: Drink plenty of water. You may need more or less depending on your size and activity level. Stay hydrated to try to keep your body functioning well and help with regular bowel movements
  • Sodium: High levels of sodium may raise blood pressure and lead to hypertension and stroke. They may also cause symptoms like dehydration and water retention. The American Heart Association recommends you consume less than 1500 mg of sodium each day

Take it all in

Quick tips for you and your doctor to consider:

  • Eat plenty of vegetables, fruit, nuts, beans, whole grains, and fish
  • Eat eggs and lean meat as a source of protein
  • Restrict saturated fat and cholesterol unless directed by your doctor
  • Avoid trans fats
  • Consider adding gluten and dairy, unless you are intolerant of them
  • Get the vitamins and minerals you need by eating a varied diet
  • Use supplements as directed by your doctor or dietician to cover any gaps

A note on vitamin D: While results are not proven, some studies suggest that vitamin D may help slow the development and progression of MS. Discuss your vitamin D levels with your doctor.

How to read a food label

These simple steps will help you and your doctor make choices that work for you:

  • Step 1: Locate the nutrition fact label
  • Step 2: Work out how many servings per container. If there is more than one serving, will you eat the whole thing? Try to steer clear of things you’ll overeat
  • Step 3: Note whether the food is “high” or “low” in what you’re trying to eat more of or avoid. Look for foods that give you the protein, fiber, and nutrients you need without the calories, fat (especially saturated fat), or sodium you don’t
  • Step 4: Weigh the pros and cons. If it’s high in fiber but also high in sodium, think about the rest of your day. Will you be able to avoid other salty foods to make room for this one? If yes, enjoy it as a treat. If not, choose something else
  • Step 5: Decide whether it’s a healthy choice for you. Reading food labels can help make sticking to a healthy diet a breeze, which means you can focus on other things

Be sure to check with your doctor if you have any questions about your diet.

About the contributor: Jessica C.

I am a writer and a registered dietician based in New York City. I have worked with many different medical populations in a variety of settings.

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