If you have had a stroke or want to lower your risk for one, the case for eating more fruits, vegetables, and other healthy plant foods—and cutting back on meat and other animal products—gets stronger every year. A recent study published in Neurology adds to the evidence that a plant-based diet can reduce the odds of a stroke and preserve overall brain health. The study also indicates that the types of plant-based foods consumed may make a difference.
Earlier studies have looked at the benefits of plant-based diets, but this one focused on the quality of those diets, says Kathryn M. Rexrode, MD, senior author of the study and a family physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Not all plant-based diets are healthy,” she notes. “After all, you can be a vegetarian and eat pasta and cake all day.”
Dr. Rexrode and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston studied the diets of 209,508 men and women over a roughly 25-year period and found that people who ate mostly fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (such as beans), and nuts reduced their overall risk for stroke by 10 percent. By contrast, they found no benefit against stroke among people who ate six daily servings of refined grains (such as white pasta and rice), potatoes (which convert to sugar rapidly in the body), fruit juice and sugar-sweetened beverages, and sugary desserts.
“If everyone in the United States followed healthy plant-based diets, we could see a reduction of about 80,000 strokes per year,” says Dr. Rexrode. “As someone who has seen the devastating impact of stroke on individuals and families, that sounds like a pretty substantial impact, and a reason to focus on diet.” Every year nearly 800,000 Americans experience a stroke, and survivors stand a one in four chance of having a second one.