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A stroke occurs whenever the brain gets damaged by a diseased artery supplying blood to that part of the brain. The average age for stroke is getting younger and younger every year, meaning stroke is no longer exclusively a disease of older people.
Unfortunately, as the average American’s weight increases, so too does their risk of metabolic syndrome and stroke.
For most stroke patients I see, I remind them that they don’t really have a primary neurological problem. Stroke doesn’t work the same way as multiple sclerosis or ALS, which primarily affect the nervous system. Instead, I point out that they actually have damage to their arteries, which is a vascular problem, and their stroke is just a symptom. The arteries become damaged by the inflammation, cholesterol, and high blood pressure that comes with unhealthy living.
It all usually centers around metabolic syndrome. This is a combination of high blood pressure, prediabetes/diabetes, a bad cholesterol profile, and a large waist. One doesn’t have to have all these risk factors to meet criteria for metabolic syndrome; just three will do.
All these conditions increase the risk of damage to anything in the body that is supplied by arteries – not only stroke, but also heart attack, heart failure, and kidney disease. Decreased blood flow to the arms and legs, retinal damage, dementia, erectile dysfunction, and even hair loss in the lower parts of the legs can also occur. All of these become starved for blood, which normally keeps organs healthy and functioning.
It’s unusual to see a person with stroke and none of these other diseases. Most stroke risk is self-induced and can be modified by changing one’s lifestyle. This is accomplished primarily through diet. Remember, exercise is great for you, but it’s not going to help you lose weight the way diet control does. “Calories in equals calories out” is an outdated and incorrect paradigm. You’re probably more likely to have healthy arteries if you’re a couch potato vegan than a calorie guzzling gym-aholic.
So what can you do to reduce your stroke risk?
Some things are out of our immediate control – you can’t change your genes or the environment. However, stroke risk is reduced by healthy living. These are at the core of not only stroke prevention, but the prevention of many other medical problems.
There are a lot of “healthy” diets out there. Some that have shown evidence specifically for stroke prevention are the Mediterranean, Nordic, and DASH diets. It’s not clear which is best, but what ties all these diets together are a few key principles:
I uniformly recommend a predominately plant-based diet with minimal processed foods to all my patients regardless of what medical problem they may have. Some people doubt the importance of these dietary interventions, but the bottom line is that they have nothing to lose by trying it. At best, a healthy diet has no harmful side effects and will minimize or even reverse the need for blood pressure and cholesterol medications. At worst, it will do nothing.
We eat processed food and animal products only because they taste good, not because our body needs them in any way. This doesn’t mean one should avoid all sugar and go 100 percent vegan. There are no bad foods, just better and worse foods. Having wild caught grilled salmon is probably better than a marbled steak. But a quinoa salad with a vinaigrette dressing is even better. An organic, low sugar gummy snack would be better than a pint of ice cream, but not as good as a whole piece of fruit. A cup of fruit and low-fat yogurt is better than a sugary, vegan cookie. It’s not about being perfect -- it’s about making better choices most of the time.
Tips to make healthy eating easier: