Poor Diet Causes Most Strokes

Each year in the United States, approximately 700,000 Americans will suffer a stroke. While about 170,000 of those strokes will be fatal, most of the others will leave permanent damage to various parts of the brain. This makes strokes the #1 cause of long-term disability in the United States. In some cases the disability is due to destruction of parts of the brain that control movement, in other cases, the disability is the result of damage to parts of the brain that control mental function. In addition, many people suffer small strokes that are never diagnosed and often too small to cause any obvious long-term effects. However, the subtle impact of many small strokes can eventually add up to senility, personality changes, and/or reduced ability to control various physical functions. Even a temporary reduction of blood flow to part of the brain can cause symptoms that mimic a stroke. This is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA). While TIAs do not usually cause much permanent damage to the brain, they are a major risk factor for having a stroke, just as angina is often an early warning sign of an impending heart attack. Unfortunately, while most strokes could be prevented with a healthier diet and lifestyle, too few Americans are actually aware of the important role of diet in preventing strokes.
Cut the Salt, Alcohol and Bad Fats
The #1 risk factor for strokes is high blood pressure or hypertension (HTN).
The #1 risk factor for developing HTN is a diet high in salt. Recent data have shown that HTN is on the rise in the U.S. The most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) shows half of all Americans ages 55 to 64 now have HTN. That’s up from a little more than 40% 25 years ago.
Data from the Framingham Heart Study show that even the now shrinking minority of Americans who make it to their 65th birthday without being diagnosed with HTN have at least a 90% chance of developing HTN in the next 20 years. An increased reliance on processed foods and consuming more meals away from home today make controlling dietary salt even more difficult than it used to be. In addition, larger portion sizes not only contain more calories but also more salt. Weight gain and consuming too much salt are largely responsible for the rise in blood pressure that occurs in most people with age. The most recent NCHS data also show 40% of Americans 55 to 64 are now obese. About 90% of men and at least 70% of women in the US will become overweight, if not obese, at some point in their lives.
Excess alcohol intake can also drive up BP and increase the risk of stroke. A high serum cholesterol level leads to more atherosclerosis and clogged arteries in older people can also raise BP, particularly systolic BP by stiffening the large arteries. High LDL-Cholesterol levels and atherosclerosis are also independent risk factors for having a stroke. Smoking tobacco promotes atherosclerosis and increases the tendency of blood to clot, both of which increase the risk of strokes.
Bottom Line:
Consuming a diet with no more than 1,500mg of sodium and limiting animal foods to 12 ounces a week of mostly fish and consuming only nonfat dairy products and egg whites and consuming 9 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily and eating mostly whole grains would dramatically lower both blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels. Such a diet, combined with a regular exercise program, would aid long-term weight control and further reduce the risk of strokes, heart attacks, type 2 diabetes and many common cancers. Finally, limiting alcohol to no more than one drink a day and avoiding tobacco smoke also cut the risk of stroke. Together these diet and lifestyle changes could prevent more than 90% of the strokes and heart attacks that afflict Americans each year.

By James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN.

Eat Your Fruits and Veggies

A recent meta-analysis examined data from eight studies with a total of more than a quarter million subjects followed for an average of about 13 years. Researchers found that those who consumed the most fruits and vegetables suffered the fewest strokes even after adjusting for blood pressure and other stroke risk factors.
The authors conclude: “Our results provide strong support for the recommendations to consume more than five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, which is likely to cause a major reduction in strokes.”1
MyPlate recommends that most individuals consume 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day.
1. Lancet 2006;367:320-6.

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