Researchers looked at health data from over 200,000 men and women in two large-scale studies that covered more than 25 years of diet questionnaires, as well as health changes over time. They found that participants who reported regular consumption of healthy, plant-based foods had a significantly lower risk of experiencing a stroke. (Related: The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now).
Plant-based diets are heavy on choices such as dark leafy greens—including kale, chard, and spinach—as well as whole grains and beans, says study co-author Megu Baden, PhD, in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Those following this type of diet tend to avoid foods made with refined grains, added sugars, and potatoes.
The benefit of these foods have been highlighted in other studies showing reduced risk of diabetes, some cancers, and cardiovascular disease, but this is one of the first to link this kind of diet to stroke prevention, Baden says.
“We found that those following this diet had 10% lower stroke risk,” she notes. “This was especially true when we take the quality of food into consideration.”
For example, the study also included vegetarians, but there was no association between that type of eating and lower stroke risk. Most likely, that’s because a vegetarian diet doesn’t automatically mean you’re eating healthy foods, Baden says. You can be a vegetarian and be putting your health at risk with highly processed food and plenty of added sugars.
When considering a pivot toward a plant-based eating style for getting cardiovascular benefits, one worth noting is the Mediterranean diet, which is abundant in quality plant sources, as well as fish and olive oil. A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that this type of diet is beneficial for lowering the risk of ischemic stroke and heart disease.
Even a single step like lowering consumption of ultra-processed foods can help, suggests dietitian Kara Hoerr, RDN, because those can be replaced by better choices.
“It’s important to find a balance,” she says. “Fruits and vegetables are great, but so are protein-based foods, whole grains, and healthy fats.”
For more, be sure to check out Here’s Exactly How a Plant-Based Diet Can Protect You From Disease, According to Experts.
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