Here’s some good news: Advancements in modern medicine have succeeded in dramatically lowering mortality after stroke. In fact, stroke has recently been surpassed by lung disease and is now the fourth common cause of death, after heart disease, cancer and lung disease.
But this increased survival rate means that more patients are now living with the disability from their stroke. Currently, stroke is the number one cause of disability in the US, with an estimated 700,000 people living with disability after stroke. And unfortunately, once a stroke has occurred, modern medicine has no “magic cure” to help with the resulting disability.
This reality makes stroke prevention even more important than ever.
There are a few risk factors of stroke that are non-modifiable and beyond our control: Age, gender, race and our genetic background are facts of life that we cannot change. There are, however, modifiable risk factors. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, being overweight, lack of exercise and diabetes. These important risk factors can very much be modified by our lifestyle choices. For example, dietary changes—like eating healthier—can help reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol.
General guidelines for healthy eating include:
- Consume a diet high in whole grains. The whole grain variety of rice, bread and pasta is beneficial because the body takes longer to digest the fiber content, thus leading to a slower release of carbohydrates into the body. The carbohydrate content in white rice, bread and pasta is easily digestible, leading to rapid absorption of these carbs into the body and a spike in blood sugar levels. Our body reacts with an increase in insulin levels trying to bring the blood sugar levels back to normal, and often leading to a subsequent drop in blood sugar, which causes us to feel hungry again. This can lead to a cycle of eatingàspike in blood sugarà spike in insulinà drop in blood sugar and second hunger attack—a cycle that often results in obesity. Consuming whole grains, on the other hand, causes a slow and steady release of carbohydrates into our blood stream, avoiding the ups and downs of insulin levels and a more steady feeling of satiety.
- Your mother was right: eat your fruits and veggies. Eating 5 servings per day can cut your risk of stroke by one third. Certain vegetables seem particularly beneficial in stroke prevention, including broccoli and cauliflower, citrus fruit, and green leafy vegetables (Note: if you are takingCoumadin, discuss any intake of green leafy veggies with your doctor, as these tend to contain Vitamin K which can interfere with the function of Coumadin). The consumption of cruciferous vegetables (for example: broccoli and cauliflower) seems to be of particular benefit.
- Choose whole foods and avoid processed foods. By preparing your own food, you can control the amount of salt and sugar added to your diet. High intake of dietary salt has been linked to significant elevated risk of heart disease and stroke, possibly through its direct effect on raising blood pressure. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) consists of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, grains, poultry, fish, and nuts and limits salt, saturated fat/red meat and sweets, as well as sugar-containing beverages. This diet been shown to significantly lower high blood pressure as well as decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Recipes in accordance with this diet can be found here.
- Limit your intake of saturated fat. Saturated fat can be found in fatty cuts of meat, high fat cheeses, butter and whole milk/cream. Not all fat, however, is bad for you. Supplementing your diet with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts) can lead to a significant reduction of stroke risk. This benefit has been shown in subjects following the so-called Mediterranean diet. Both the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet are considered to be very healthy; while the DASH diet gives strict standards as to how many servings of each component (grains, fruits, vegetables) should be included, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes the consumption of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and other healthy foods, without giving specific recommendations. More information can be found here.
- Spice it up. Curcumin, a component of the spice turmeric, has been shown to have potent neuroprotective effects, and its use has been studied in a variety of conditions such as arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and autoimmune processes. While I would not go so far as to recommend taking this spice in pill form as a supplement, adding it in liberal amounts to your diet may be a delicious way to reap its benefit.
Choosing healthier foods doesn’t mean you have to spend more at the grocery store, either. Here are a few tips for healthy eating on a budget:
- Consider buying frozen vegetables over fresh. Veggies you find in the freezer aisle have been flash-frozen and thus retain many of their vitamins. The amount of vitamins in produce diminishes the longer the items travel and are stored, which means that going for frozen may well give you more vitamin bang for your buck.
- Include beans and whole grains in your diet, which you can often buy in bulk
- Avoid pre-cut vegetables and fruit as they are often sold at a higher price
- Some planning can go a long way: plan the meals of the week ahead of time and go to the store with a list in hand—this can help prevent spur of the moment buys
- Take advantage of the internet: the USDA, for example, offers a recipe library that is easily searchable and can be customized according to budget considerations. You can find it here.