My Parkinson's Disease Diet
Updated: May 4, 2020
This post is about my approach to nutrition for Parkinson's Disease. I'll focus on the food aspect and write about drugs and supplements in a separate post.
First, a disclaimer: this information covers what worked for me and how I prefer to approach nutrition to fight the disease. It is not medical advice and is not intended as a personal recommendation.
My goal is to be transparent about my choices so you can make better, informed decisions.
My Background: More than Opinion
In 1999 I reached my peak level of unhealthiness. At the age of 25, I successfully transitioned from smoking two packs of cigarettes daily to consuming gluttonous amounts of junk food. I was around 260 pounds at my heaviest (I was too embarrassed to weigh frequently, so this is a best guess) and popped the buttons on my 44" slacks. I couldn't tie my own shoes without falling out of breath. It was clearly time for a change!
After trying dozens of different diets and exercise regimens, I finally realized the solution wasn't a program. I needed to shift my mindset and make changes that would last for life. I cut out processed and fried foods, ditched chicken wings for lean protein sources, swapped out chips for whole grain rice and started eating fruits and vegetables with every meal. I started weight training alternated with running six days out of the week and never trained for more than an hour in a day (unless I went on a longer run). The result is easier to show than describe.
It's important to note that losing weight and gaining muscle doesn't qualify me as an expert. It means I figured it out for me, but everyone is different. Just because someone can sing well or play the piano doesn't make them a great teacher. My physique transformation was so empowering I wanted to help others achieve the same. I knew a big part was my focus on mindset, but I also wanted to understand the science behind the exercise and nutrition. I studied and passed certifications as a Fitness Trainer and a Specialist in Performance Nutrition. I started a fitness business and helped dozens of clients lose hundreds of pounds.
Tip 💡: if you're interested, I published dozens of articles about my pragmatic approach to healthy living. You can read most of them online at Bodybuilding.com.
It was frustrating for me to see people read about an exercise, meal, or supplement and decide it would be the key to their success. The typical pattern: a client would see a muscular athlete promote creatine or branched-chain amino acids as the "key to muscle gain" and decide that was the one thing they were missing. They'd believe the promise in the ad that "this is necessary" despite the fact that muscular physiques date back to thousands of years before the supplement industry existed.
My approach is simple: I don't integrate anything unless I know it will work for me. As an example, I learned that the majority of Americans are lactose intolerant but don't know it or refuse to acknowledge it. They blame weight loss on slow metabolism and sniffles on allergies. I cut out dairy for four weeks and immediately lost weight and experienced my first year without a sinus infection. I found the majority of my clients who did the same had similar benefits, but were so addicted to dairy most were not able to give it up. Instead of being honest about their addiction, they would try to justify it using industry claims like "I need this for calcium" (completely untrue). A few clients went four weeks and didn't notice a difference, so obviously for them dairy is fine.
Everyone is different and you should allow yourself time to see if changes will work for you. Give it a solid four-week trial. If you notice a positive difference, try to make it a more permanent change. If you don't see changes, feel free to add that food back, or if it's a supplement you're trying out, recognize it isn't working as advertised and save your cash. This philosophy resulted in me trying a variety of supplements and nutrition programs from low-carbohydrate and high protein ketogenic diets to raw foods and juice fasting. My knowledge is based on firsthand experience, but only with what works for me.
This "self-experimentation" showed me the benefits of eliminating dairy and animal products. I also found out that I am gluten sensitive. Foods with gluten give me stomach pain and cause my skin to dry out. I do not have celiac disease (I've been tested) but I know to regulate my gluten intake based on this. I would not have known had I not tried to eliminate it for a month to see how my body responded.
A Plant-based Approach
By 2014 I was exercising regularly (I'll write more about exercise in an upcoming post) and eating what I considered a "clean diet." I ate five or six small meals a day to keep my glucose levels steady. I ate mostly plant-based but had lean proteins with at least half my meals, ranging from low fat beef or bison to chicken and seafood. Things were far from perfect.
I struggled to fall asleep. I felt tired, went to bed, and stayed awake most of the night. I frequently used a combination of melatonin and alcohol to try to make me pass out. My workouts suffered as well. I was sore for days after weight training, and although I jogged several days a week, my pace was an abysmal 13 to 14 minutes per mile (8 minutes per kilometer). My doctor informed me at 39 years old that I was "just getting older and recovering slower."
My wife and daughter were the catalyst for a major change. My wife, Doreen, suffered from Multiple Sclerosis-like symptoms, but MS was ruled out and the cause remained undiagnosed. At our daughter Lizzie's urging, they both decided to go 100% plant-based (vegan nutrition). This means no meat, no seafood, no poultry, no dairy, no butter, no eggs: no animal-derived products. They were "all-in" for about a month when we went on vacation and I decided to try it, too.
For my wife, it not only eliminated her symptoms and enabled her to walk without a cane for the first time in years, it also helped alleviate the pain from her fusion back surgery. She was able to completely eliminate her pain medication. I began to sleep soundly, recovered far quicker from my workouts and was able to run 9-minute miles again (5:30 minutes per kilometer). My blood pressure dropped, triglycerides and cholesterol levels improved, and my health improved tremendously. Take this with a grain of salt because it's anecdotal and not scientific, but since going 100% plant-based I have not had a sinus infection or suffered a serious bout with a flu or cold. Prior to that I'd have at least one illness a year that required me to take a "sick day."
Going plant-based may not be for everyone. Many people simply cannot fathom giving up meat. A few will admit it's just a refusal to give up a craving. Some get angry and threatened and use excuses. A few common objections I get...
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"But humans were designed to eat meat." That may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that humans are perfectly fine without it. A vegan diet is scientifically proven to reduce risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and a laundry list of other conditions that kill over 300,000 people per year in America alone. It is far more effective than a vegetarian diet, implying that removing dairy and eggs are key to receive the health benefits. If you are willing to learn the facts, consider grabbing and reading a copy of The China Study.
"Only animals provide complete proteins." This one isn't true. Most plants provide all essential proteins, just in varying amounts. It's a myth that you need equal amounts of all amino acids at every meal. Your body has a tightly regulated amino acid pool that can be replenished by food throughout the day. You need a spectrum of amino acids during the day, not in each meal. It is interesting to note that most traditional meal combinations account for this. For example, beans are low in methionine, but provide adequate lysine. Rice is deficient in lysine but provides methionine. They complement each other.
"You won't get enough B12 or Calcium or Iron." I take supplements with my food and am tested annually for key nutrients. I am yet to have any deficiencies.
"You need animal protein to build muscle." Tell that to Luca, who has been vegan since 2009.
I'm a huge fan of plant-based nutrition and it breaks my heart to see so many people dismiss it outright. "I could never do that" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are a lot of ways to try it
out and ease into it. Many friends of mine pick a day a week to be entirely plant-based. This is a good start. Eventually, imagine doing the opposite: just having meat one day a week. How would that impact your health without completely eliminating foods you love? I strongly believe in the one-month or four-week challenge: do it for just a month and see how you feel. That's easier to tackle than "I'm changing for good" because you can work to a deadline. Most people find they struggle the first week or two, but by the end nothing tastes quite as good as living healthy feels.
For a highly inspiring story about the power of going plant-based, check out ultramarathon champion Scott Jurek's book Eat and Run.
It doubles as a cookbook: just between you and me, it contains some of our family's favorite plant-based recipes. The chili alone is worth the investment.
As an added bonus, there is abundant research that suggests eating plant-based foods reduces your carbon footprint. In fact, switching from a primarily meat-based diet to plant-based can have such a positive impact on the climate that many countries now have vegan days and months designed to take advantage of the positive changes. One thing our family noticed was that before going vegan, our regular trash was always overflowing while our recyclables could fit in a small bin. After the change, it reversed. Our regular trash is barely full and our recycle bin is overflowing.
COVID-19 is infecting and killing people around the world. Hundreds have died in the U.S. alone and it has been difficult to control the spread. What's frustrating is that poor diet and lack of nutrition, two factors that everyone can choose to control, are responsible for an estimated half million (500,000) to million (1,000,000) deaths in the U.S. every year. That's hundreds of thousands of lives lost because people refuse to make the decision to sacrifice immediate gratification (the taste of food or the comfort of the couch) over their health.
I was one of those people, and I'm glad I gave myself a choice. After I changed my lifestyle and began living healthy, I had the choice to go back. I chose not to. If you haven't made a change or commitment yet, you are robbing yourself of that choice. You don't get to choose because you don't know how healthy living feels, so there is nothing to compare your current situation to. Haven't tried it yet? Why not make a one-month commitment to change your habits. After 30 days, you can always go back, but at least you'll know what it feels like to make an informed choice.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. - 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Modifications for Parkinson's Disease
There is no specific "Parkinson's Disease diet." The key is to maximize overall health while reducing the impact of symptoms. The plant-based approach to me is the optimal way to provide what my body needs to fight it. Although the cause of the disease is still unknown, research suggests that inflammation from so-called Lewy bodies may play a role. Plant-based diets eliminate many sources of inflammation like dairy. Constipation is a common symptom and a plant-based diet naturally provides large amounts of fiber to combat this. Plants are rich in antioxidants and helpful phytochemicals and bioflavonoids.
Parkinson's Disease affects the brain. A favorite book of mine that deals with brain health is Dr. Julian Whitaker's The Memory Solution. The brain needs healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids that are difficult to come by without supplementing or eating cold water fish. One of the concessions I made when I was diagnosed in 2020 was to add back fish. I eat salmon about once a week, so I guess you can now call me a "pescatarian" instead of vegan.
To this point I've used the term "plant-based." Chips, French fries and coconut ice cream are all plant-based, but they provide the same empty calories as other processed foods. Oreos don' t contain animal products and are considered "accidentally vegan," but I wouldn't call them "healthy." A change I decided to make when I was diagnosed is to focus on more "whole plant foods." For me, this means more rice and beans over meat-replacement burgers. It means pushing comfort foods like ice cream and chips to the weekend and consciously adding more vegetables and fruits to my meals. I also consciously choose red wine over other forms of alcohol to take advantage of its antioxidants.
A Typical Day
On week days I focus on whole plant foods. A typically day of meals for me looks like this:
Breakfast: a bowl of steel cut oats with hemp hearts, cashew butter, oat milk, agave, and blueberries
Mid-morning snack: a pea protein shake
Lunch: chickpea salad made with vegan mayo rolled in corn tortillas with an apple and a blood orange on the side, and a dark chocolate square for a little sweetness
Afternoon snack: roasted cashews and a tangerine
Dinner: baked salmon, broccoli and asparagus with whole grain rice
On the weekends I splurge by having waffles (processed) and/or hashed browns (fried) for breakfast, chips with my lunch and ice cream as a late-night snack.
Eating Out and On the Road
In my last job, I traveled quite a bit. Eating on the road can be challenging but I was able to make it work everywhere I traveled from Europe to India, Bulgaria and even Russia. The key is to know how to ask for appropriate modifications, research menus ahead of time, and be flexible. For example, in places where options are limited, I'll eat more bread (gluten) as a compromise for the fiber and protein or consume foods made with egg. I traveled often enough that I learned what restaurants in each airport are vegan-friendly. Here's an awesome meal courtesy of Floret in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
I find that certain styles of cuisine are more accommodating than others. Most Asian restaurants have plenty of plant-based options. Indian restaurants usually have several dishes that are vegan or can be made vegan. Mediterranean food is awesome, just choose tahini over tzatziki sauce. On the flipside, Italian is a bit more challenging (I can get pasta with olive oil but where's the protein?) and it's tough to find a decent wing joint that is willing to offer a fried tofu option.
Finding the right nutrition is an ongoing process. I constantly experiment with changes to see how I respond. Some things are based on instinct (i.e. I know it will never hurt to eat more leafy green vegetables and fruits) while others are trial and error, such as how much and what type of fish I should add back. I'll continue to tweak and share my progress on this blog.
Do you have any nutrition insights, especially specific to Parkinson's Disease? Feel free to share in the comments below.