Nutrition plays a very important role in the management of Parkinson’s disease (PD). People with PD may experience constipation, food-medication interactions, difficulty swallowing and weight loss. Establishing and maintaining good eating habits can help manage these issues and improve overall well-being while navigating Parkinson’s.
This July, the Parkinson’s Foundation will host Eat Your Way to a Healthier You, a nutrition event in Boston, MA, that will feature an in-depth look at nutrition and diet for people living with Parkinson's, healthy eating tips and tricks, plus a PD-friendly meal for all attendees.
Alison Gerber, a registered dietitian at the non-profit organization Community Servings, a Parkinson’s Foundation community grant recipient, prepares and delivers medically-tailored meals to individuals with critical and chronic illnesses, will be leading the nutrition event. Here’s a sneak peek into some of the information she’ll be sharing:
Though there is no special diet for Parkinson’s, eating balanced meals is important to feeling well and maintaining energy. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be all or nothing — you don’t have to completely eliminate foods you enjoy and you don’t have to change everything all at once. To set yourself up for success, use the tips below to come up with your own plan to make healthier choices:
- Make small, manageable changes. For instance, start with eating a salad once a day. As small changes become habit, you can continue to make additional healthy choices.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. Eating colorful fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber and most are low in calories. Aim to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables.
- Make at least half of your grains whole. Look for whole grains listed as the first or second ingredient — try oatmeal, popcorn, whole-grain bread and brown rice. Limit refined grain-based desserts and snacks, such as cakes, cookies and pastries.
- Eat healthy fats and limit unhealthy fats. Foods with healthy fats include nuts, olive oil, avocado and fish. Foods with unhealthy fats include butter, red meat and palm oil.
- Choose a variety of lean protein foods. Mix up protein foods to include seafood, beans and peas, nuts and seeds, eggs and lean meats and poultry.
- Eat less added sugar. Added sugars are sugars and syrups put in foods during preparation or processing. The major sources of added sugars are regular soft drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pies and fruit drinks.
Constipation is very common among people with Parkinson’s. Instead of rushing out to buy laxatives, which can damage your digestive tract, try some of the below tips to help resolve your constipation naturally:
- Eat foods that are high in fiber. Fiber is the part of plant foods that the body can’t digest. When you eat foods that are high in fiber, the extra bulk helps keep stools soft and speeds digestion. Gradually increase your fiber to allow your body to adjust. High fiber foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
- Drink more water. Drinking water helps reduce gas, bloating or constipation. Liquids help to digest fiber, so drink more fluids if you are eating more high fiber foods. Aim for six to eight glasses of water or unsweetened beverages per day.
- Be as active as possible. Exercise helps constipation by decreasing the time it takes food to move through your digestive tract. Even if you are just taking a light walk once a day or doing seated exercises, activity can help establish a regular bowel pattern.
One of the most important medications used to treat PD is levodopa combined with carbidopa (Sinemet). Levodopa is a protein building block so it competes for absorption with proteins from food. Eating a high protein meal reduces the likelihood of effectively absorbing levodopa, so it may be necessary to plan the timing of meals and medication. Talk to your doctor before trying any of these tips to help make your medication more effective:
- Take levodopa 30 to 60 minutes before eating a meal. This allows the medication to be quickly absorbed before the food can interfere. If taking the medication without food causes stomach upset, try taking it with a graham cracker or soda cracker, which are low in protein. Ginger tea can help alleviate an upset stomach.
- Consider eating less protein. Altering the amount of protein you eat is usually only necessary in later PD stages when motor fluctuations are prominent. Work with a nutritionist to understand how to distribute high protein foods throughout the day and ensure you’re eating enough protein to maintain health.
As a registered dietitian, Alison has more than eight years of nutrition experience in both the clinical and community settings. She is devoted to spreading her love of food and nutrition to help others treat and prevent chronic diseases. Alison currently works at Community Servings, a non-profit organization that prepares and delivers medically-tailored meals to individuals with critical and chronic illnesses in Massachusetts.
Related content: Substantial Matters, the Foundation's podcast series, also features a special episode dedicated to the importance of good nutrition for people with Parkinson’s.