Choose a Healthy Diet to Reduce Your Risk of Stroke

May 03, 2021

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Sharjeel Panjwani, MD Sharjeel Panjwani, MD View Profile
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Every year, more than 795,000 Americans suffer an often-debilitating stroke. The good news is that stroke can be prevented by living a healthy lifestyle.

A stroke, sometimes called a brain attack, occurs when a blood clot blocks blood supply to part of the brain or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. When the flow of blood is blocked, brain cells start to die within minutes because they can’t get oxygen. This causes a stroke, which can result in lasting brain damage, long-term disability, or even death.
Among the healthy choices you can make to decrease your risk of stroke, which increases with age, is to eat a healthy diet.

Eat a Healthy Diet

“The results of a new study in the journal Neurology recommend stocking up on plant-based foods if you are looking to reduce stroke risk while also improving your cardiovascular health,” said Dr. Sharjeel Panjwani of the Department of Neurology at Baystate Medical Center.

According to the study co-author, Megu Baden, PhD, in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the benefits of these foods have been highlighted in other studies showing reduced risk of diabetes, some cancers, and cardiovascular disease, but this is one of the first to link this kind of diet to stroke prevention.

Among a long list of dark green leafy vegetables include beet greens, chard, Chinese cabbage, watercress, collard greens, kale, spinach, leaf lettuce, chicory, and romaine lettuce.

A Diet Rich in Greens

“Dark green veggies are low in calories, carbohydrates, sodium and cholesterol, but very rich in fiber. These nutrient-packed greens contain many vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, K, C, E, and many of the B vitamins. Eating a diet rich in greens, as part of an overall healthy diet, may reduce risk for many diseases, including stroke,” said Donna Martin, RD, clinical dietitian III, Food and Nutrition Services, Baystate Health.

She also noted diets high in saturated fats and trans fats have been linked to stroke and related conditions, however, not all fat should be avoided and consuming some unsaturated fat from avocados, liquid olive and canola oil, nuts, and salmon is usually regarded as a healthy choice.

“The fats to limit are definitely the saturated and trans fats. The saturated fats are mainly found in foods that come from high fat meats and whole-fat dairy products, but they can also be found in fried foods and baked goods. Trans fats are produced when liquid oils are transformed into solid fats during food processing. In order to avoid trans fats, read food labels to determine the amount of trans fat in products, such as commercially baked cookies, crackers, pies, and fried foods. Both saturated and trans fats can increase our LDL, the ‘bad’ cholesterol levels in our blood,” said Martin.

Control Your Blood Pressure

Another lifestyle choice is to control your high blood pressure which is the No. 1 controllable risk factor for stroke. Blood pressure is the pressure of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries, and high blood pressure – which nearly half of all Americans have – is when the force of blood is consistently too high damaging your arteries and organs and over time and increasing your likelihood of stroke, noted Dr. Panjwani.

Foods high in salt (sodium) can raise your blood pressure. Most of the sodium Americans eat comes from packaged, processed, store-bought, and restaurant foods.

“To decrease intake of salt, read food labels of processed foods or snacks and select lower sodium varieties. Be mindful that regular sauces, such as soy, barbecue, teriyaki, and ketchup are very high in sodium. Experiment with sodium-free herbs and spices rather than using salt or salt-blends and other high sodium seasonings. When dining out, request that salt not be added to your foods and request that any dressings/sauces be served on the side,” said Martin.

“Once again, your food choices and overeating leading to obesity can have a big impact on your blood pressure,” she added.

Obesity Is a Risk Factor

Obesity is a disease that affects 34 percent of adults age 20 and over. Excess body fat can lead to inflammation, which results in poor blood flow and potential blockages – two major causes of stroke.

“Usually consuming a generally healthy diet, rich in lean protein choices, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products helps to provide our bodies the nutrients that are needed. However, when we consume excessive portions of any food, especially calorie-dense foods such as fried foods, sweetened beverages, desserts, candy, and baked goods, weight gain is likely,” said Martin.

To prevent obesity, the Baystate dietitian noted mindful eating is important as well as engaging in regular physical activity.

Find Exercises You Enjoy

“Try to find exercises that you enjoy doing to increase the likelihood that you will continue this healthy behavior. Many people report lack of time as a reason not to exercise, however, you can incorporate simple ways to increase activity such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking further away, or walking or riding a bicycle to the store. Also, be aware of the amount of time that you are sitting daily and make an effort to move at least a few minutes each hour, even when you are unable to get in a full workout,” said Martin.

Smoking and drinking too much alcohol can also raise your blood pressure putting you at greater risk for a stroke.

“If you smoke, Stop. There are many ways that we can help you with this goal. And when drinking, it should be in moderation as chronic alcoholism and binge drinking can increase the risk of both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke,” said Dr. Panjwani.

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