Not long ago, UK Plant-based Professionals -a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of plant-based nutrition, in which as a Clinical Dietitian specialized in autoimmune disease and vegan nutrition, I am also a member- published a very interesting article on a recent important study concerning ischaemic and haemorrhagic stroke and association of foods, bringing once again on the surface the benefits of a vegetarian pattern in nutrition.
According to World Health Organization, cerebrovascular accidents, which are commonly known as strokes, are the second leading cause of death and the third leading cause of disability worldwide (1). Furthermore, the last 40 years, stroke incidences in low- and middle-income countries seem to have doubled, calling for immediate action for prevention.
Before we look into the study, we need to make an important clarification so as to understand the difference between the two kinds of stroke: ischaemic and haemorrhagic. Ischaemic stroke is the most common one as it accounts for 87% of all cases (2), and occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. The haemorrhagic stroke, on the contrary, happens when there’s excess blood due to haemorrhages into the brain, which occur when a blood vessel bursts and bleeds. It depends on where exactly a stroke occurs and how much it will affect the brain, so as to determine if it’s a light or a fatal one. This separation will help to understand why some foods are better or worse for one case or the other, according to the study.
The study, that is referred to by UK Plant-based Health Professionals, is published in European Heart Journal (3) and it includes 418,329 participants from nine European countries (Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK), with an average of 12.7 years of follow-up. What is really important to know about this study is that there are lots of foods that have a positive or negative impact on these two kinds of strokes.
More generally, participants that had a stroke reported lower cheese, grains and grain products, fruits, vegetables, pulses, seeds and nuts consumption and higher red and processed meat as well as milk consumption. As far as geographic differences are concerned, the highest consumption of fruits and vegetables was reported in Southern Europe countries like Greece, Italy and Spain, while the highest meat consumption was reported in Denmark.
Which foods affect an ischaemic stroke
According to the study, the foods that are associated with lower risk of an ischaemic stroke are fruits, vegetables, whole grain and dairy while higher risk was observed with higher red meat consumption which attenuated when adjusted for the other statistically significant foods. To be more specific, increasing your fruit and vegetable consumption by 200gr a day, will lower the risk by 13%, while increasing 10gr of whole wheat can lead up to 23% lower risk. Dairy are found to also lower the risk by 5 to 12%. Red and processed meat, on the contrary, raise the risk of ischaemic stroke and to be more specific, 50 gr consumption might raise the risk by 14% according to the study.
Which foods affect an haemorrhagic stroke
When it comes to the haemorrhagic type of stroke, things are a little different, as eggs appear to be the main food-culprit. To be more specific with numbers, researchers found that 20gr of eggs a day raise the risk by 25%, a percentage not to be taken lightly. Foods that seem to be protective against this type of stroke are those that lower cholesterol and blood pressure, while fruit vegetables and fibre are always on the safe side, offering us beneficial nutrients for vascular health.
As you may have noticed, dairy seem to play a role in preventing ischaemic stroke and the researchers assume that it’s their potassium and calcium content that may be beneficial. Their fat content wasn’t assessed in the study so we don’t know if it plays a role or not. However, if you follow a whole-food plant passed diet with plenty fruits, vegetables, seeds, legumes and nuts, you don’t have to consume dairy, as you’ll get all the calcium and potassium you need from these healthy plant foods.
Global Health Estimates. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2012. Available from: http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/en/ [cited 2016 June 1].