You know that a diet of butter, bacon, burgers, and processed foods puts you on a fast track to a heart attack, but it can also increase your risk of a stroke, which is also caused by narrowed arteries—in this case, blood vessels that feed the brain. (A small percentage of strokes, called hemorrhagic stroke, are caused not by clogged arteries but by ruptured ones.)
Since the underlying problems are similar, so are the solutions, like not smoking, renewing your gym membership, and of course, changing your diet, which, by the way, can help control high blood pressure, considered the leading modifiable risk factor of stroke. (Also, as with heart disease, there are some factors, like age, gender, and race that you can’t do anything about — so why not act on the ones you can influence?)
A massive study of thousands of women, called the Nurses’ Health Study, showed that eating the typical Western-style diet increased stroke risk by 58 percent, whereas consuming more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish—the same foods that guard against so many other diseases—lowered that risk by 30 percent. Here’s where to start. (Hint: Buy a bunch of bananas at the store and plan a spinach salad topped with tuna for tomorrow’s lunch.)
The DASH Diet
One of the most important ways to protect yourself from a stroke is to lower your blood pressure. When your pressure is higher than 140/90 mmHg, your stroke risk doubles. And for every 20 mmHg increase in systolic pressure ( the first number in your blood pressure reading) or 10 mmHg increase in diastolic pressure (the second number), your risk doubles yet again.
The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet, which is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fiber, low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, and fruits and vegetables, has been shown to decrease blood pressure by 5.5/3.0 mmHg, which is enough to cut your stroke risk by 27 percent. Go a step further and reduce your sodium intake to about 2/3 teaspoon of salt a day, and you can lower your pressure by 8.9/4.5 mmHg. That’s about the same reduction you can get by taking a single blood pressure medication.
Even on their own, the foods that make up the DASH Diet are very strong stroke fighters. Eating plenty of whole grain fiber lowers risk by about 40%, and other research shows that eating fruits and vegetables daily reduces it by 20 to 50%. While you are doing the DASH, you can lower your blood pressure another four points or so by getting some regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting your alcohol intake.
Oats, almonds, soy foods, and cholesterol-lowering margarine
How does a nice, steaming bowl of cholesterol-lowering oatmeal sound, or a snack of crunchy almonds (excellent source of vitamin E)? Have you discovered soy milk or edamame—young green soybeans, great in soups and salads or eaten right off their pods—yet? These are three of the foods that make up a cholesterol-lowering regimen known as the Portfolio Eating Plan, developed by researchers in Toronto. When eaten as part of a total diet that’s low in saturated fat, this combination of foods appears to reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels by 28 percent, almost as much as statin drugs does.
It’s not clear whether high cholesterol levels contribute as much stroke as they do to heart attacks, but there’s good reason to suspect they may. Some research suggests that lowering cholesterol levels with statin medications can reduce stroke risk by about 25 percent. It follows that lowering your cholesterol through diet would also help.
High cholesterol contributes to plaque buildup in the blood vessels around the brain, paving the way for an ischemic stroke, the most common kind. In fact, for women under the age of 55, having high cholesterol seems to increase the risk of dying from a stroke by about 23 percent, even if they don’t have cardiovascular disease. Even more frightening: Elevated cholesterol increased stroke deaths among younger African American women by a whopping 76 percent.
Now, to get your LDL cholesterol below the 100 mg/dl level that’s recommended for people with multiple risks for cardiovascular disease, you may still need a statin, but following a cholesterol-lowering diet is a good place to start.
The Portfolio plan calls for eating the following each day: about a handful of almonds; 20 grams of soluble fiber from foods such as oats, barley, and certain fruits 9to get there, you’ll need to eat 1 cup of oatmeal, beans, strawberries, and mashed sweet potatoes and one apple); 50m grams of soy protein (the equivalent of a whopping five or more servings of soy foods); 2 grams of plant sterols from sterol-enriched margarine; and five to nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Off course, even if you don’t follow this plan exactly, you’re bound to see benefits from adding more of these foods to your diet.
Blueberries, sweet potatoes, artichokes, and other foods rich in antioxidants
One reason fruits and vegetables are great against preventing a stroke is that they’re such good sources of antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation and prevent plaque buildup in the arteries. They also enhance blood flow by helping blood vessels widen.
Try to aim for 7 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. One serving is one medium piece of fruit; ½ cup of fruit or vegetable juice; ½ cup of chopped fruit or cooked vegetables, beans, or legumes, or 1 cup of leafy vegetables.
Bananas, baked potatoes, white beans, and other foods rich in potassium
Here’s a good reason to pack a banana with your lunch: Bananas are loaded with potassium, and experts think one of the reasons the DASH Diet works so well is that it provides plenty of this mineral. Researchers show that eating a diet low in potassium increases stroke risk by 28 percent. The Health Professionals Follow-Up Study found that participants who ate nine daily servings of potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, like potatoes, prunes, and raisins as well as the foods listed above, lowered their stroke risk by 38 percent compared to people who ate just four servings.
Try to aim for 4.7 grams (4,700 milligrams) of potassium daily, an amount you can get by eating 7 to 10 servings of potassium-rich fruits and vegetables each day. One baked potato, a cup of white beans, a cup of canned tomatoes, and a cup of winter squash contain about 1,000 milligrams.
Beans, spinach, and other foods rich in folate
Beans aren’t just good for your heart; they’re also good for protecting your brain. That’s because they’re rich in the B vitamin folate (a.k.a folic acid). According to a 20-year study of nearly 10,000 adults, eating a diet rich in folate lowers their risk of stroke by 20 percent. Here’s more intriguing evidence: Researchers who looked at the number of strokes in the United States before and after food manufacturers began fortifying flour with folic acid to prevent birth defects found that 10 to 15 percent fewer stroke deaths in the three years after fortification began than in the three years before.
If you’ve stopped drinking milk, it may be time to start again. There’s an excellent reason that low-fat and fat-free dairy foods are mainstays of the DASH Diet—they’re good sources of potassium, magnesium, and calcium, all of which naturally lower blood pressure. Indeed, a study of men in Puerto Rico found that hypertension was half as prevalent among milk drinkers as among those who didn’t drink it. So it makes sense that if milk (and dairy foods) lowers blood pressure, it would also reduce the risk of stroke. In fact, a 22-year study of more than 3,100 Japanese men in Honolulu Heart Study found that those who drank at least two 8-ounce glasses of milk a day had half the risk of stroke compared to non-milk drinkers.
Barley, buckwheat, cornmeal and other magnesium-rich foods
The same study that found that potassium-rich foods decrease stroke risk also showed that a diet high in magnesium-rich foods reduced risk by 30 percent, even if you don’t have high blood pressure. 500 milligrams of magnesium a day should do it. You can get that by eating a cup of black beans, a cup of spinach, a serving of halibut, and an ounce of pumpkin seeds.
Salmon and other fatty fish
You know it’s good for your heart, so you should be eating fish like salmon anyway. If you are, you’re probably protecting yourself from a stroke. For starts, by eating more fish, you’re automatically eating less red meat and processed meats like sausage, hotdogs, bacon, or lunchmeat, and that means you’re eating less artery-clogging saturated fat.
It’s also possible that the omega-3 fats in fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon also improve blood flow by reducing inflammation in the arteries and making blood less likely to clot. A 12-year study done at Harvard Medical School of nearly 5,000 adults age 65 and older found that eating fish one to four times a week lowered stroke risk by 27 percent.
The American Heart Association recommends at least two servings of oily fish a week. Since mercury contamination is a concern, opt for types lower in mercury, such as salmon and canned light tuna, and steer clear of highly contaminated fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.