How a wholefood plant-based diet can cut your risk of having a stroke

Read Time:   |  11th March 2022

A vegan diet doesn’t automatically reduce your risk of stroke, but a healthy plant-based diet does! Here’s all you need to know about how to cut your risk of having a stoke with a plant-based diet...

What is a stroke?

A stroke is a sudden loss of blood supply to a part of the brain, which leads to a rapid loss of brain function and requires immediate medical care.

It’s caused either by a blockage of an artery supplying the brain with blood or it can happen when a blood vessel in the brain bursts.

Stroke symptoms may include:

  • Losing the ability to move and feel, usually on one side of the body
  • Loss of speech and vision
  • Inability to understand or react
  • Dizziness

How much damage a stroke can cause varies. Some people recover fully, some only partially, while for others it can be fatal.

There are many risk factors, including advanced age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, physical inactivity, poor nutrition, obesity and depression1.

Some of these are beyond our control, but most are linked to lifestyle.

Your blood pressure matters a great deal!

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is probably the biggest risk factor because it makes your blood vessels more prone to blockage and damage.

Most people who eventually suffer a stroke also have blood pressure that’s too high.

The authors of one study did the maths and found that reducing your blood pressure by 5 mmHg in systolic blood pressure cuts the risk of stroke by 14 per cent2!

Across scientific studies, vegans tend to have lower and healthier blood pressure than others3.

Compared with meat-eaters, vegans have a 63 per cent lower risk of hypertension4.

A switch to a wholefood, plant-based diet usually achieves a substantial blood pressure reduction over time5

It’s because it increases your intake of potassium2, which helps to normalise blood pressure, you take in more antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory nutrients, more fibre, less saturated fats and absolutely no cholesterol.

All that can help you achieve a healthy blood pressure.

Cholesterol as a key villain

High blood pressure is often caused by your blood vessels narrowing thanks to too much cholesterol.

When you have high cholesterol levels, you have many small, sticky cholesterol blobs floating in your blood.

They can stick to blood vessel walls (particularly in arteries) and form layers called cholesterol plaques. This is known atherosclerosis, a condition that narrows and hardens the arteries.

It’s a big risk factor for strokes – not just because it increases your blood pressure, but also because there’s a risk that a plaque will tear away and block a blood vessel in the brain6.

When you eat too much animal protein, saturated fats and sugar, cholesterol levels shoot up1.

On the other hand, eating a low-fat vegan diet reduces cholesterol and can even diminish cholesterol plaques1.

The key is to avoid coconut and palm oil, processed and sugary foods7.

Learn more about the power of a plant-based diet for preventing illnesses here: 

Salty enemy

Reducing your salt intake is another crucial step in the prevention and treatment of high blood pressure1,8.

Eating too much salt makes your body hold on to more water than it normally would and that increases blood pressure.

Plant-based diets tend to be lower in salt, but it’s not a given. If you have a healthy diet but eat too much salt – more than six grams a day – you may still have high blood pressure.

Eating too much salt makes your body hold on to more water and increases your blood pressure.

Eating too much salt makes your body hold on to more water and increases your blood pressure.

Alcohol can cancel out diet benefits

It’s been suggested that alcohol consumption may cancel the protective effect of healthy vegan diets on your risk of stroke8.

Experts say that even if you have a healthy diet, the risk of stroke increases after about nine standard drinks per week for women and 14 for men9.

Take your B12

If your body doesn’t have enough vitamin B12, it cannot perform some reactions and a compound called homocysteine starts accumulating in your blood8.

It’s dangerous because it may damage the blood vessel lining and promote blood clotting – increasing the risk of stroke.

It’s difficult to get enough vitamin B12 from foods alone, so it’s best to take a supplement on a regular basis. Take 50 micrograms daily or 2,000 micrograms once or twice a week.

Eating a plant-based diet and supplementing with vitamins B12 and D will reduce your risk of having a stroke.

Eating a plant-based diet and supplementing with vitamins B12 and D will reduce your risk of having a stroke.

Reducing your risk of stroke with a vegan diet

There’s an overwhelming amount of scientific data showing that healthy plant-based diets lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke and halt the progress of existing cardiovascular issues.

When a large study compared the stroke risk of vegetarians (who ate hardly any eggs and dairy) and non-vegetarians, the scientists found that the vegetarians had half the risk of stroke8!

According to numerous studies, we should eat five to eight servings of fruit and vegetables daily for maximum stroke risk reduction10.

Berries and green leafy vegetables, such as kale, broccoli or Brussels sprouts, have a particularly protective effect on blood vessels7 so they should be on your daily menu.

Other foods that can help to protect you from stroke are wholegrains, pulses and nuts7,10.

Wholegrains include wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta, oats and brown rice, while pulses include lentils, beans, soya and chickpeas and products made from them, such as houmous, tofu or falafel.

Aim for at least two servings of wholegrains, two servings of pulses and one serving of nuts a day.

Perhaps surprisingly, daily coffee consumption may lower the risk of stroke11, but you mustn’t overdo it – three to four cups daily is a safe amount for most adults.

Conclusion

A vegan diet won’t automatically reduce your risk of stroke if it’s based on junk foods and high in salt.

However, if your plant-based diet is centred around fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses and nuts and seeds, with the addition of vitamins B12 and D, it will reduce your risk of stroke and can even reverse atherosclerosis if you already have it.

Eating a plant-based diet is a great way to reduce your risk of having a stroke.

Learn how to maintain a healthy heart with these heart-healthy foods.

Resources

  1. Campbell T. 2017. A plant-based diet and stroke. Journal of Geriatric Cardiology. 14(5):321-326.
  2. Kahleova H, Levin S, Barnard N. 2017. Cardio-Metabolic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets. Nutrients. 9(8):848.
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466938/
  4. Pettersen BJ, Anousheh R, Fan J, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fraser GE. 2012. Vegetarian diets and blood pressure among white subjects: results from the Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2). Public Health Nutrition. 15(10):1909-1916.
  5. Alexander S, Ostfeld RJ, Allen K, Williams KA. 2017. A plant-based diet and hypertension. Journal of Geriatric Cardiology. 14(5): 327-330.
  6. Banerjee C, Chimowitz MI. 2017. Stroke Caused by Atherosclerosis of the Major Intracranial Arteries. Circulation Research. 120(3):502-513.
  7. Freeman AM, Morris PB, Barnard N, et al. 2017. Trending Cardiovascular Nutrition Controversies. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 69(9):1172-1187.
  8. Chiu THT, Chang HR, Wang LY, et al. 2020. Vegetarian diet and incidence of total, ischemic, and hemorrhagic stroke in 2 cohorts in Taiwan. Neurology. 94(11):e1112-e1121.
  9. Spence JD. 2018. Diet for stroke prevention. Stroke and Vascular Neurology. 3(2):44-50.
  10. Aune D. 2019. Plant Foods, Antioxidant Biomarkers, and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer, and Mortality: A Review of the Evidence. Advances in Nutrition. 1;10(Suppl_4):S404-S421.
  11. Freeman AM, Morris PB, Aspry K, et al. 2018. A Clinician’s Guide for Trending Cardiovascular Nutrition Controversies: Part II. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 72(5): 553-568.

Written by

Veronika Charvatova

Veronika Charvatova

Veronika Charvátová MSc is a biologist and Viva! Health researcher. Veronika has spent years uncovering the links between nutrition and good health and is an expert on plant-based diets.

viva.org.uk/author/veronika/

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