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Parkinson’s Disease Diet

Contributor: Nancy Oliveira, MS, RD, LDN
7 minute read
An array of vegetables and ingredients like carrots, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, broccoli, purple cabbage, lettuce, red chiles, radishes, artichokes, and more.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects the nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. It leads to tremors, problems with muscle control, and dementia. There’s no cure for Parkinson’s, but there are treatments to help manage and slow the worsening of symptoms.

Lifestyle changes such as eating well, exercising, and reducing stress can also help with Parkinson’s disease. Nancy Oliveira, MS, RD, LDN, a Mass General Brigham dietitian, discusses the role of diet and nutrition in Parkinson’s disease. Oliveira is the manager of the nutrition and wellness service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

How can diet help Parkinson’s disease?

“The disease process that leads to Parkinson’s begins up to a decade before symptoms appear,” Oliveira says. “It’s absolutely worthwhile to look at lifestyle factors such as diet. They may help delay the start of symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.”

She says there’s recent interest in exploring the link between the gut microbiome and conditions like Parkinson’s disease. Your gut microbiome includes all of the microscopic organisms in the digestive tract. Some research suggests that what you eat affects your brain health, and diet may even play a role in preventing Parkinson’s disease.

“A large Harvard study on Parkinson’s showed that people with very high intake of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, had a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease,” Oliveira says. “The low-risk people also ate plenty of lean protein and smaller amounts of saturated fat.”

People with Parkinson’s disease may burn more calories even at rest, which means you need to eat more calories. You may need to eat quite a bit more just to maintain your weight.

Nancy Oliveira, MS, RD, LDN
Mass General Brigham

What is the best diet for Parkinson’s disease?

A heart-healthy diet is also beneficial for brain health. “This is because a heart-healthy diet is good for blood vessel health, and that includes the blood vessels in your brain,” says Oliveira.

So, what foods are good for Parkinson’s disease? Rather than focusing on a limited list of foods, Oliveira suggests following a pattern of eating that includes:

A variety of many plant-based foods

“Parkinson’s disease is an inflammatory brain condition. We’re finding that inflammation in the brain and body has a lot to do with the gut microbiome, the billions of microbes, or ‘gut bugs,’ that live in your digestive tract.”

The beneficial gut bugs love the fiber that plant foods contain. “As the gut bugs break down plant fibers, they produce chemicals that have anti-inflammatory effects in the body,” Oliveira says. “These chemicals may also boost your immune function.”

Plant-based foods that feed our gut bugs include:

  • Fruits

  • Vegetables

  • Beans and legumes

  • Nuts

  • Whole grains

Probiotic foods

To further support your microbiome, Oliveira suggests eating probiotic foods that contain microbes that benefit gut health. Healthy probiotic foods include:

  • Kefir

  • Kimchee

  • Sauerkraut

  • Sourdough bread

  • Yogurt

She only recommends taking probiotic supplements if you're working with a knowledgeable health care provider. “The high doses of probiotics you get in supplements can be too much for your system,” she says.

Enough lean and plant protein

“It’s really important to get enough protein because every cell in your body needs protein daily,” Oliveira says. How much protein is enough? “We recommend getting a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day.”

To calculate your minimum daily protein intake, multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.36. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you need at least 54 grams of protein per day.

Your protein doesn’t have to come from meat. In fact, plant proteins can be very beneficial. “Some studies show that plant proteins such as tofu, beans, nuts, and tempeh help reduce inflammation,” Oliveira says. “And these protein foods also contain the fibers that gut bugs prefer.”

Timing your protein intake may be important if you take levodopa, a common Parkinson’s treatment. “Eating protein at the same time you take levodopa could make the drug less effective,” Oliveira says. She recommends taking levodopa at least an hour before or after eating protein.

Foods to avoid with Parkinson’s disease

Oliveira says while it’s important to understand what foods are good for people with Parkinson’s, the right diet isn’t about following strict rules but an overall pattern of eating that best supports your health. “It’s about the synergistic effect of many different healthy foods working together,” she says.

But some types of foods don’t support this healthy eating pattern. She encourages limiting:

Saturated fat

A diet low in saturated fat is better for blood vessel health because saturated fat can cause inflammation in blood vessels. “You want to do what you can to keep the blood vessels of your brain as healthy as possible,” Oliveira says.

Ultra-processed, low-nutrient foods

Ultra-processed foods with long ingredient lists, artificial ingredients, unhealthy fats, added sugars, and preservatives contain little nutrition. And they can negatively affect your microbiome. “We want to encourage the growth of beneficial gut bugs, which means limiting these types of ultra-processed foods and eating plenty of high-nutrient foods,” Oliveira says.

Excessive alcohol

“We recommend no more than moderate alcohol consumption for people with Parkinson’s disease,” Oliveira says. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that means a maximum of:

  • Two drinks per day for men

  • One drink per day for women

Make sure you’re eating enough.

With Parkinson’s disease, it can be hard to eat enough, especially when you’re having symptoms. This happens for several reasons:

  • Your metabolism may be higher. “People with Parkinson’s disease may burn more calories even at rest, which means you need to eat more calories,” Oliveira says. “You may need to eat quite a bit more just to maintain your weight.”

  • You may have trouble chewing and swallowing. Parkinson’s affects your muscles, including those that help you swallow food, which may make eating harder.

  • You may feel full faster. The muscles that move food through your digestive tract may not work as well, so food leaves your stomach more slowly. This makes you feel full more quickly, making you want to eat less.

  • You may feel too tired to eat. Eating requires energy, and you may not feel like eating if you’re already tired.

To help combat these issues, Oliveira suggests consuming:

  • Softer foods that require less chewing
  • Nutritious smoothies
  • Soups and stews
  • Smaller, more frequent meals
  • Plenty of water

“When you’re getting enough protein and nutrients, you’ll notice a boost in energy level,” Oliveira says. “That’s helpful because when you’re tired, it gets hard to eat.”

She recommends working with a registered dietitian (RD) when building your Parkinson's care team because diet and nutrition can be complex. An RD can create customized meal plans with foods you enjoy, ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs, and help you optimize your protein intake.

Nancy Oliveira, MS, RD, LDN