A high-carb, high calorie diet has been shown to slow the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), providing a new prevention strategy against the rare neuromuscular disease made famous in the U.S. by baseball icon Lou Gehrig.
Lead author Dr. Anne-Marie Wills of the Massachusetts General Hospital told reporters that the findings also strengthen the suggested link between ALS progression and the patient’s overall diet. “There is good epidemiological evidence that, in ALS, survival is determined by nutritional status,” she said in a press release. “This pilot study demonstrates the safety of a novel, simple, low-cost treatment for a devastating disease where currently, very few treatment options are available.”
ALS, which currently affects about 30,000 Americans, is characterized by a gradual loss of muscle movement, speech, and other general motor skills. Advanced cases typically involve breathing problems, dementia, and troubes chewing and swallowing. After the onset of symptoms, patients typically die within three to five years.
The new study, which is published in the journal The Lancet, shows that this fatal progression may be slowed down by adjusting a patient’s diet. To investigate, the researchers enrolled 20 patients with advanced ALS in a five-month experiment. Each participant followed one of three diets: one high in carbohydrates, one high in fat, and one control diet designed to maintain current weight.
Wills and her colleagues found that, compared to patients who followed the high-fat or control diet, those who followed the high-carb diet were significantly less likely to suffer adverse events like respiratory failure — one of the most common causes of death among late-stage ALS patients. According to the researchers, the discovery could dramatically improve palliative and preventative care for ALS as well as similar diseases.
“Although the sample size was small, we are optimistic about these results, because they are consistent with previous studies in ALS mouse models that showed that hypercaloric diets improve survival,” Wills explained. “Not only could this type of nutritional intervention be a novel way to treat and slow down the progression of ALS, it might also be useful in other neurological diseases.”
That said, the authors are also quick to point out that a high-carb, high-calorie diet is always a risky option. While common outcomes like diabetes and cardiovascular disease were not observed in the current sample, more research is needed before any hard guidelines may be issued. After all, with both obesity and diabetes on the rise, public health officials must remain wary of unwanted tradeoffs.
Source: Wills AM, Hubbard J, Macklin EA, Glass J, et al. Hypercaloric enteral nutrition in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 2 trial. The Lancet. 2014.