Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80% of strokes are preventable. Lifestyle changes, especially nutrition, have the power to dramatically reduce your risk of stroke and other health problems.
“Improvements to your lifestyle can lower your risk of stroke in as little as 3 months — not only preventing a first stroke, but also preventing a second stroke if you’ve already had one. So it’s not too late to make changes,” says Sasha Bayat, RD, LDN, a Mass General Brigham dietitian and a member of the Nutrition and Wellness Service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Incorporating certain foods into your diet can help reduce the factors that contribute to stroke, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.”
She adds, “Making small, gradual changes to the foods you eat, rather than completely changing your diet overnight, can be a helpful way to make long-lasting changes that are tailored towards your personal lifestyle and dietary preferences.” She emphasizes several specific foods to prevent stroke.
“When it comes to making diet and lifestyle changes, it’s important to be kind and compassionate with yourself. It doesn’t have to be an overhaul. Just the simple addition of some fruits and vegetables into your day or making one change at a time can make a difference,” she says.
Bayat says the Mediterranean diet is a dietary or lifestyle approach strongly linked to reducing risk of stroke. It’s based on traditional foods in the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece and Italy. It’s largely composed of:
“Nuts and olive oil are examples of healthful fats that you can easily sneak into your day. Studies show that even small quantities, like an ounce of nuts per day, a quarter of an avocado, or a tablespoon of olive oil with meals, can make a big difference,” Bayat says. “They have specifically been shown to reduce the risk of stroke.”
She recommends 1 ounce of nuts per day. This can help reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and support overall vascular health. Nuts are also a source of unsaturated fats, which can lower low-density lipoproteins (LDL, sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol”) and raise high-density lipoproteins (HDL, often referred to as “good cholesterol”).
Bayat also suggests adding more red or purple fruits and vegetables to your diet. Beets in particular can help reduce blood pressure, which is one of the biggest risk factors for stroke.
“Studies show that one 8-ounce glass of beet juice can help lower systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) by 5 to 8 points,” she says. “Beets are high in dietary nitrates, which dilate (open) the blood vessels, thereby improving blood flow throughout the body.”
Beets and other red or purplish plant-based foods, including pomegranates, cherries, red grapes, berries, and purplish-blue leafy vegetables, also contain antioxidants called anthocyanins. Antioxidants help prevent and repair cellular and DNA damage. DNA damage can speed up aging and increase the risk of disease.
Eating more antioxidant-rich foods can help improve blood pressure and lessen inflammation. Many of these foods also contain fiber, which helps lower cholesterol.
Sprinkling cinnamon on food is a simple way to help reduce stroke risk. It works by reducing blood pressure, blood glucose (sugar), inflammation, and LDL, all of which are significant risk factors for a stroke.
“Oatmeal is an amazing option,” Bayat says. “It is super high in fiber, and it’s actually a fermentable fiber. That means if you heat it up and then let it just cool for a few minutes, it starts to ferment, and that feeds a specific type of beneficial bacteria in our gut. It binds to cholesterol and carries it out of our body for excretion. So, eating oatmeal can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and lower your cholesterol.”
The saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is based in some truth. Apples contain fiber, which helps lower cholesterol.
Apples (and pears) also are rich in an antioxidant called quercetin, which can help prevent blood clots, relax arteries, and improve blood flow. They are also a source of potassium, which can further help to lower blood pressure, Bayat explains. Additional foods high in potassium include bananas, beans, avocado, and sweet potatoes.
Beans are a powerhouse food. They contain fiber, potassium, and magnesium, all of which help keep the blood clean of cholesterol, relax blood vessels, and lower blood pressure.
Limiting salt and sugar is a key step in reducing stroke risk. Most people should eat less than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day—even 1,500 milligrams for the greatest benefit (about two-thirds of a teaspoon).
As for sugar, Bayat recommends no more than 25 grams per day (about 2 tablespoons). “The less refined or added sugar the better. Sugar can cause inflammation in your blood vessels and brain,” she says.
However, Bayat says that salt and sugar can be helpful in an unexpected way. “If you add just a tiny bit of either salt or sugar when you’re first starting to get used to certain foods you don’t like — over time, that can help you adjust,” Bayat says. “Say you don’t like carrots, but you’re trying to incorporate them into your diet. You can try adding a bit of salt and slowly decrease the amount of salt over time, which can help you adjust to the taste and eventually like them.”
It can be hard to change your diet. Bayat offers a few tips:
Fill your plate halfway with fruits or vegetables.
Grab a handful of nuts as a daily snack.
Have at least 1 fruit or veggie every time you eat.
Sneak healthy options into foods that you already like, such as eggs, smoothies, and sandwiches.