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Following a Healthy Plant-Based Diet May Reduce Your Stroke Risk

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Key Takeaways

  • Eating a high-quality plant-based diet may be able to reduce your risk of stroke by 10%, according to a recent study.
  • Focusing on nutrient-dense foods while limiting (not avoiding) animal-based proteins appears to offer some benefit. 
  • There are other steps you can take to reduce your stroke risk like exercising and quitting smoking..

Incorporating plant-based foods can have numerous health benefits. And now, a new study links a healthy plant-based diet to a 10% reduction in stroke risk compared to people who eat a lower quality diet.

“The benefits of following or adding in more plant-based foods is crystal clear for overall heart health, including stroke reduction,” Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD, clinical dietitian and the author of The Nourished Braintells Verywell.

Mussatto, who was not involved with the recent research, shares that the results of this study echo what she recommends to patients,

"[I tell patients] to fill their plates with predominately plant-based foods rich in nutrients such as potassium, fiber, and magnesium, which helps reduce plaque formation, blood pressure, inflammation, and formation of clots," she says. "With less plaque buildup and reduced blood pressure along with other lifestyle changes, the lower the risk of having a stroke.”

Additionally, following a plant-based diet is linked to a reduced risk of obesity, reduced sodium to potassium ratio, and a reduced risk of developing sleep apnea—all risk factors for stroke. The March study was published in the journal Neurology.

What This Means For You

If you are trying to reduce your stroke risk, eating high-quality plant-based foods may help reduce your risk. Next time you go to make dinner, add twice the servings of vegetables suggested in a recipe or fill your plate up with a few servings. One way to incorporate more nutritious, plant-based foods into your diet can be by having one meatless meal a week.

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

A plant-based diet, or a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, beans, and other plants, is linked to a slew of health benefits, including a reduced risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

There is no standard definition of the term “plant-based.”

While some plant-based diet followers include a small amount of animal-derived proteins like fish, eggs, or milk, the unifying theme is that plant-based foods make up the bulk of their meals. 

To evaluate whether there is a link between following a plant-based diet and stroke risk, researchers used data from previously collected cohorts: the Nurses’ Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study II, and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. In total, over 209,000 participants were evaluated, and none of the participants had cardiovascular disease or cancer at the beginning of data collection. Subjects were followed for more than 25 years during the data collection period.

Researchers classified the participants into five groups based on the amounts of plant-based foods they consumed. Those at the highest end of the spectrum had 12 servings of healthy plant-based foods per day, while the lowest quality diets averaged seven and a half servings per day.

Those with the highest intake of what the researchers considered to be healthy plant-based foods—think beans, whole grains, fruits, green leafy vegetables, and vegetable oils—also had the lowest intake of refined and less-healthy food, like foods with added sugars and refined grains. They also included, on average, three servings of meat and dairy a day. 

Conversely, those who ate the lowest amounts of healthful food also ate the most starchy vegetables, refined foods, and animal/dairy servings. 

Results showed that when compared to those who ate the lowest amount of healthful plant-based foods, people who ate a large amount of plant-based foods had a 10% reduced risk of having a stroke, with an 8% reduced risk for ischemic stroke, or a stroke that occurs because of a blockage in the artery.

Avoiding animal proteins and following a vegetarian or vegan diet did not appear to reduce stroke risk, according to this data. 

Taking a Closer Look at the Results

“This study adds to the growing collection to define how human diet impacts cardiovascular outcomes from a neurologic standpoint, meaning stroke,” John Gassler, MD, a cardiologist and medical director of MVP Healthcare, tells Verywell. 

Yet, although the authors claim that the study favors the proposed high-quality vegetarian diet, Gassler highlights some caveats when putting any recommendations from the study into practice. 

Gassler points out that the evaluation was “a non-randomized cohort study providing information about an association between diet and stroke outcomes.” Since an association does not necessarily mean causation, it cannot be assumed that eating a plant-based diet will definitively result in a reduced risk of stroke.

Since the subjects evaluated were healthcare professionals who were mostly Caucasian, results also can’t be extrapolated to the general public. 

However, because past data says that plant-based nutrition may reduce the likelihood of several risk factors linked to stroke risk, including hypertension, waist-to-hip ratio, diet quality, diabetes, cardiac causes, and lipid profile, there does not appear to be a downside to eating more nutrient-dense and plant-based foods to support overall heart health, and possibly stroke reduction.

How to Include More Plant-Based Foods in Your Diet

According to this study, it is not enough to simply eat more plants. It's important to choose higher-quality foods that pack a punch when it comes to nutrition. Including nutrient-dense plant foods, like quinoa, leafy greens, and lentils instead of choosing refined options like white rice is critical to reaping the nutritional benefits. 

“For many, the idea of eating more plant-based can leave people very confused and many times feeling overwhelmed with the idea of where to even start,” Kathleen Oswalt, RDN, a South Carolina-based registered dietitian, tells Verywell.

She shares some ways to incorporate more plant foods into a diet in a simple and approachable way:

  • Add more vegetables to your dinner plate. When assembling your plate at mealtime make sure half your plate is filled with your favorite vegetables. You can choose from a variety of fresh, frozen, and even canned. The focus is to simply increase the amount you’re eating.
  • Take small steps to create change in the way you eat. Try incorporating one meatless meal a week. 
  • Increase the number of vegetables in recipes. If a recipe calls for two cups of spinach, add three to four cups. If a recipe calls for one chopped carrot, add two. Adding more vegetables fills your meals with more vitamins, minerals, and many beneficial plant compounds that decrease your risk for chronic diseases.
  • Add balanced smoothies to your weekly or daily routine. Experiment with fresh greens, frozen vegetables (like zucchini or cauliflower), frozen fruits, nuts, seeds, and spices like cinnamon, ginger, or turmeric.

Other Ways to Reduce Stroke Risk

While eating more plant-focused meals may be a wise step for reducing stroke risk, there are other steps you can take to help keep your body stroke-free that go beyond the diet. 

Gassler shares the following tips to include when trying to reduce risk of a stroke:

  • Increase exercise
  • Maintain a sensible weight through diet and exercise
  • Work with your physician to control your risk factors, such as blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Stop smoking 
  • Be mindful of your genetic risk if there is a family history of premature cardiovascular disease
  • Work with your physician to be as proactive as possible to minimize that risk if you have other diagnoses that increase your risk for stroke

And, at least according to the current study, swapping out a beefy burger for a mushroom option or enjoying a lentil soup instead of a meaty stew may do some good in the stroke risk reduction department.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Campbell T. A plant-based diet and stroke. J Geriatr Cardiol. 2017;14(5):321-326. doi:10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2017.05.010

  3. Patel H, Chandra S, Alexander S, Soble J, Williams KA Sr. Plant-based nutrition: an essential component of cardiovascular disease prevention and managementCurr Cardiol Rep. 2017;19(10):104. doi:10.1007/s11886-017-0909-z