Eat these foods to lower your risk of stroke, studies suggest

By Linda M. Richmond
Published April 30, 2021

Key Takeaways

Plant-based diets are all the rage, and perhaps rightly so. They’ve been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also help the planet by cutting carbon emissions.

A new study has found that plant-based diets lower risk of stroke, too. But hang on to your barbecue tongs: You may not need to cut meat from your diet entirely to reap the benefits of eating plants. Rather, recent research found that what’s important is eating the right plant foods, while avoiding less healthy plant foods.

In fact, there may be a few “plant-based” pitfalls to steer clear of.  So what are the “healthy” plant foods and how can busy physicians work more of them into their diet? Here’s what the latest research has found, as well as guidance from a nutrition expert. 

Diet and stroke

Researchers analyzed the diets and stroke incidents of some 210,000 health professionals over a 25-year span, according to a recent study published in Neurology. They found that following a healthy plant-based diet may decrease overall stroke risk by up to 10%, compared to a lower quality diet. According to the CDC, stroke causes one out of every 19 deaths in the United States and is a leading cause of long-term disability.

Researchers classified all foods eaten by participants into three broad categories: “healthy” plant foods, “less healthy” plant foods, and animal foods. Then they reviewed participants’ diet questionnaires to tally how many servings of each were eaten daily. Researchers defined “healthy” plant based foods as the following: fruits, leafy greens/vegetables, whole grains, nuts, vegetable oil, legumes, and coffee/tea.

Researchers wrote, “we found that a healthful plant-based diet was significantly associated with a 10% lower total stroke risk,” as well as marginally lower ischemic stroke risk. But there was a catch: The diet associated with lower stroke risk included lower levels of “less healthy” plant foods. These were defined as the following: 

  • potatoes, 

  • fruit juices,

  • “refined grains” (eg, white bread, white rice, white pasta, croutons, crackers), 

  • sweets and desserts, and

  • sugar-sweetened beverages 

Researchers also analyzed the effects of a vegetarian diet, and found no consistent evidence that a vegetarian diet reduced risk of stroke, although the case numbers were small, they wrote. The authors explained the result this way: “A vegetarian diet with higher intakes of unhealthy plant-based foods, such as refined grains and added sugars and fats, than intakes of whole foods, would be unlikely to yield maximal health benefits.”

Plants and CVD, Gestational Diabetes

Recent research suggests that eating a healthy plant-based diet before becoming pregnant also provides benefits. The study found that following a healthy plant based diet, while also avoiding unhealthful plant based foods, was associated with 19% lower risk of developing gestational diabetes, according to a study reported in Medscape and presented during the virtual American Diabetes Association 80th Scientific Sessions.

The study builds on previous findings associating plant-based diets with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Similar to other studies, participants didn’t avoid all meat or have a vegan diet to reap the benefit.

Yet another recent large study of more than 42,000 male health professionals found that eating high quality plant protein foods—such as legumes, nuts, or soy—in place of red meat reduced the risk of coronary heart disease, according to the results published in BMJ. Researchers also found that substituting whole grains and dairy products in place of red meat, and eating eggs in lieu of processed red meat, might also reduce risk.

For more on optimal eating for cardiac health, read “What the Research says about these heart-healthy diets” on MDLinx

Expert: Pump up the healthy plants

In an exclusive interview with MDLinx, Danielle Omar, integrative culinary dietician and plant-based eater for more than two decades, gave her advice on what constitutes a healthy plant-based diet, and how busy physicians can achieve it. “When the foundation of your diet comes from plants and plant foods, I consider that to be plant-based. So, if looking at it from a plate perspective, at least half your plate would be filled with foods like greens, vegetables, whole grains, nuts or seeds, beans, and fruit,” said Omar, who is also author of Super Green Smoothies

“I have found that for many people the ‘plate method’ is the easiest way to incorporate more plants into their diet with very little effort,” Omar added. “Just focus on one thing—making half your plate veggies or salad—and leave the remaining quarters for high fiber carbs and lean protein. This is really easy to do! Another way is to plan 2 to 3 days per week as ‘meatless days.’”

The biggest stumbling blocks for busy professionals tend to be overthinking their diets and trying too many things at once, Omar added. “Don’t go from zero to 100 and try to be ‘perfect’ right out of the gate. Just choose one thing and make it a habit, like incorporating a green smoothie into your day, for example. Once this becomes a habit, then move on to something else.”

The food industry has caught on to interest in plant-based diets and has responded with a slew of so-called “plant-based meats,” such as plant-based deli slices, sausage, burgers, and the like. These are sold in grocery stores, restaurants, and even hospital cafeterias, but they may be more of a pitfall than a healthy choice. Beyond Meat, for example, has more than 18 grams of fat in a 4-ounce serving, meaning that more than half of its calories come from fat. That serving also contains one quarter of a day’s fat allowance, not counting any cheese, toppings, or side dishes.

“Having physicians replace their animal-based burgers with these highly processed ‘fake meats’ isn’t the point,” Omar said. “They aren’t really changing the way they consume vegetables and greens...I would prefer to see them replacing their burgers with a salad, a bean-based soup, a smoothie, or some other whole food, plant-based option.”

For related information, read “The best and worst diets for 2021, according to experts,” on MDLinx.

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