A healthy diet can also help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, says Eliza Miller, MD, MS, assistant professor of neurology at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center in New York City. While medication is typically prescribed for people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, a diet that includes plenty of plant foods and limits red meat addresses those cardiovascular risk factors too. A plant-based diet could guard against cognitive impairment and dementia as well, says Dr. Miller.
Avoiding red meat and egg yolks may help prevent strokes and heart attacks for yet another reason, says J. David Spence, MD, professor of neurology and clinical pharmacology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. His research and that of others show that these foods interact with naturally occurring bacteria in the intestines of some people to produce trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a gut metabolite that clogs arteries and can trigger strokes and heart attacks.
Dr. Spence cites a “defining” study from 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that among subjects who produced the highest levels of TMAO, risk for a stroke or heart attack was two and a half times higher than for those with the lowest levels. How much TMAO is produced in response to eating red meat and eggs depends on the strains of bacteria in the intestines (known as the gut microbiome), which differ from one person to another. Now researchers, including Dr. Spence, are trying to identify which microbes are the culprits, with the goal of developing a therapy to replace bad bacteria with healthier bacteria.
Shifting from a traditional American diet—high in unhealthy fats and sugar, low in produce and whole grains—to one emphasizing healthy plant-based foods can start with simple changes. Here are some strategies to adopt.
Keep it lean. Dr. Spence recommends limiting consumption of meat—sticking mainly to chicken and fish—to no more than about four ounces (a palm-size serving) every other day. Eat red meat even more sparingly. You can reduce your meat intake with some culinary sleight of hand. For example, when you make meatballs or burgers, replace one-third to one-half of the ground meat with finely diced mushrooms or eggplant. “You’ll be hard-pressed to tell the difference,” says Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD, a sports and lifestyle dietitian who manages the nutrition program at Ochsner Fitness Center in New Orleans. Also consider nonmeat substitutes such as the Impossible Burger, which is made with soy and potato protein instead of beef. “It tastes surprisingly similar to meat,” says Kimball, who ran a blind taste test in which the Impossible Burger beat out all-beef burgers.
Skip egg yolks. Egg whites or egg-white-based substitutes can be purchased by the carton at most grocers. “You can make amazingly good egg salad sandwiches with egg substitutes,” says Dr. Spence. Egg-white frittatas and omelets are good meatless options too.
Join club Med. Traditional diets of people in the Mediterranean region tend to focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and olive or canola oil; they include few servings of meat, dairy products, and processed foods. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018, the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of strokes and heart attacks by about 30 percent versus a low-fat diet over a five-year period.
Go natural. Choose fresh foods whenever you can and eliminate as many processed products as possible. “With that change, you can reduce the amount of salt, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats you consume,” says neurologist Ayesha Sherzai, MD, of Loma Linda University Health in Loma Linda, CA. Eat fruit instead of drinking juice, and opt for fruit over pastries or other prepared desserts. An apple, for example, provides nutrients and fiber but not the 5 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat and additional 175 or so calories in a slice of store-bought apple pie. If fresh or frozen foods are hard to come by where you live, look for canned vegetables, says Dr. Sherzai. “They’re not ideal, but they’re better than potato chips.”
Avoid refined carbohydrates. When people eat less meat, they may load up on pasta instead. But the standard types made from refined wheat convert to sugar rapidly during digestion, which can promote hyperglycemia—a risk factor for severe strokes. Look for whole-grain pasta or varieties made from nonwheat sources, such as zucchini and hearts of palm, says Kimball. Similarly, when buying bread, select whole-grain rather than white bread.
Beware of salt. “Sodium is sneaky,” says Dr. Miller, since you may not realize how high the sodium content is in certain foods, such as canned soup, deli meats, pizza, and even packaged bread. Too much sodium contributes to high blood pressure, a risk factor for stroke. Read food labels and find products you enjoy that have lower sodium levels, suggests Dr. Miller. Nutritionists encourage people to consume less than 20 percent of the daily value (the amount not to exceed each day) for sodium, which is 2,300 milligrams. A first step in reducing sodium intake could be eliminating crackers and potato chips as snacks; possible replacements include unsalted popcorn with a pinch of Parmesan; apple slices with unsalted peanut butter; or home-baked pita chips flavored with olive oil, paprika, and unsalted garlic powder. Dr. Miller also suggests making your own bread, which allows you to limit how much salt goes in “and can be a fun activity for families.”
Skip sodas. Sugary drinks like colas can spike blood sugar, says Dr. Sherzai. Diet sodas are no better, as artificially sweetened beverages are associated with a higher risk of stroke and dementia, according to a 2017 study in Stroke. If you don’t like water, try iced or hot tea sweetened with agave or honey.
Dine at home. “A lot of people are afraid of cooking,” says Dr. Sherzai, but learning just a few simple, healthy recipes gives you greater control over what you eat and avoids the unhealthy ingredients in processed meals and restaurant fare. “Cooking [a healthy diet at home] can save lives,” says Dr. Sherzai.
3 responses to “Plant-Based Diet May Protect Against Stroke”
A friend decided one day to switch to a vegetarian diet. (He probably read some helpful information like this blogging site.) Within a short time he no longer needed his heart medication, his blood pressure medicine or his insulin injections.
He did not tell his doctor about his change of diet because he wasn’t open to hearing about alternative to western medication. He waited till the doctor’s curiosity got the better of him.
One day in one of my friend’s regular doctor visit he finally popped the question. What are you doing that has cleared up your incurable medical conditions.
Whether that was an epiphany for the family doctor, I don’t know. Did he now start giving his patients an alternative? Don’t know. But he couldn’t refute the overwhelming evidence sitting in front of him.
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Thanks, Jasper. Very interesting and not really surprising. Actions speak louder than words. Happy New Year!
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Great article , I wrote a similar article