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Nutritional knowledge: a medical blind spot?

I am often asked why, if changing your diet can bring health benefits for people with MS, doctors do not suggest this as an option.

The answer is, of course, that nurses and medical students in the UK are taught very little about nutrition, or the way that what we eat affects the way our bodies work. This means that neither your GP, your neurologist nor your MS nurse are likely to suggest that altering what you eat could have a positive effect on your MS symptoms. Another reason is that it is difficult to test the effects of diet on patients using the same sort of double-blind clinical trials that pharmaceutical companies use to test drugs, and at present these are the only kind of trials that most doctors regard as reliable proof that a treatment works.

A recent edition of Radio4’s The Food Programme, discussed the woeful lack of training given to doctors in the UK on nutrition. This is strange, when it is estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of patients visiting GP surgeries are suffering from conditions that have their roots in how they live, and in particular, how and what they eat. In my opinion MS, like Type 2 diabetes or obesity, often has its roots in faulty diet. Changing what I ate certainly made a huge and positive difference to the progression of my MS.

Now, at last, things are beginning to change. Medical students are starting to request guidance on nutrition, and the Royal College of General Practitioners has approved a Culinary Medicine programme, which will help doctors to discuss food knowledgably with their patients. US medical schools are already running a similar programme. In the beginning, it appears this is going to be solely about healthy eating, rather than specific eating plans for specific illnesses. However, a healthy diet, rich in whole foods and vegetables, is definitely a good place to start for anyone with MS

NHS doctor, Rupy Aujla, is heading up the Culinary Medicine programme here in the UK. Like Professor Jelinek, who pioneered the Overcoming MS diet, he advocates other lifestyle changes, as well as a healthy diet, in order to maximise physical and mental wellbeing. These include regular exercise, adequate sleep, and either mindfulness or meditation.

One of the most effective ways to start to eat more healthily is to cut down radically on the amount of sugar you eat. Research at the University of Alabama has shown that white sugar has a rapid and adverse effect on the ability of white blood cells to fight infection. If, like many people with MS, you get a lot of bladder infections, this could be a good reason to reduce your sugar intake. But you don’t have to give up sweet treats altogether. I’ve been making sugar-free cakes for years, and I now much prefer them to  traditional sugar-laden recipes. This month’s recipe is an example of a cake that uses fruit and maple syrup instead of sugar to provide sweetness. Bear in mind, though, that although maple syrup is a healthier alternative than refined white sugar, it still contains a lot of natural sugar, so don’t eat too much of it.

Further reading:

The Doctor’s Kitchen by Dr. Rupy Aujla (Harper Collins, £14.99).

BLOG - June, 2019