Every year, more than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke, and about 610,000 of these are first-time events, according to the CDC. The majority of these are women, who have a lifetime stroke risk of one in five, killing twice as many women as breast cancer.  Yet there is a simple way to lower your risk, according to a study out of Harvard, by shifting away from animal products to a plant-centric diet.

The study comes from researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and was published in the journal Neurology. Titled “Quality of Plant-based Diet and Risk of Total, Ischemic, and Hemorrhagic Stroke,” the research revealed that a healthy, plant-based diet, focused on vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, and beans, and containing lower levels of animal products and processed foods, as well as added sugars — was linked with a lower risk of stroke. Therefore, adopting a plant-based diet could help prevent stroke.

How to Prevent Stroke

“Our findings have important public health implications, suggesting that future nutrition policies to lower stroke risk should take the quality of food into consideration,” said first author Megu Baden, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Nutrition.

For their research, scientists crunched numbers presented in health data from 209,508 women and men in the Nurses' Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, who did not have cardiovascular disease or cancer when they began participating in the research. Researchers tracked them for more than 25 years and study participants completed diet questionnaires every two to four years.

Eating Plant-Based Could Lower Stroke Risk

Ultimately, the researchers found that a healthy plant-based diet was not only associated with a 10 percent lower overall stroke risk but was also linked to a modest reduction in risk of ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked. Worth noting: Scientists found no association found between a healthy plant-based diet and reduced risk of hemorrhagic stroke,  a type of stroke which happens when an artery in the brain leaks blood or ruptures.

“Many individuals have been increasing the amount of plant-based components in their diet,” said Kathryn Rexrode, associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and co-author of the paper, in the same media statement. “These results show that higher intake of healthy plant-based foods may help reduce long-term stroke risk and that it is still important to pay attention to diet quality of plant-based diets.”

Experts not involved with this study are also encouraged by these findings as evidence of all the amazing things going plant-based does for your health beyond reducing your stroke risk.

Stroke Risk May be Lower for Vegans and Vegetarians

Nicole Harkin, MD, FACC, a preventive cardiologist and founder of Whole Heart Cardiology further breaks down the findings: “This study analyzed a very large number of participants and found that those consuming a healthy, plant-based diet had a 10 percent reduced risk of stroke. A prior study showed a possible increased risk of a specific type of stroke called hemorrhagic stroke, in which there is bleeding in the brain, in vegetarians and vegans,” she said.

“This has not been shown previously and this study further supports prior trials demonstrating a reduced risk of stroke overall in those consuming a healthy, plant-based diet (and no sign of increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke). Vegan and vegetarians who are consuming a healthy diet with limited processed plant-based foods should feel reassured that they are at low risk for cardiovascular disease, including stroke."

Since this study was epidemiologic, i.e., researchers follow and analyze participants but don’t change any variables in an experimental setting, it can only indicate a correlation between a healthy plant-based diet and reduced stroke risk, and not a causal link. “While they do their best to account for differences between groups, there is always the possibility of residual differences, other than the behavior being studied, that can explain the findings. This is why we look for consistency across studies and use large numbers of people,” added Harkin.

Despite any potential shortcomings of epidemiologic studies, Harkin is nevertheless pleased by the results. “Plant-based and plant-predominant diets have been found in numerous studies to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, insulin resistance, and cardiovascular disease. Given that stroke risk is closely related to all of these conditions, it is not surprising that the risk of stroke would be lower with a healthy, plant-based diet,” she offered. Her suggestion for taking these findings out into the real world and your dining room table? “Focus on a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and try to minimize processed food, this includes junk food, where possible!”

And even if you don’t have heart disease, taking control of your cardiovascular health right now is key. As Dr. Cooke recently explained to The Beet, if you eat junk food and high-animal-fat foods, your blood vessels respond by constricting, and the endothelial cells become sticky, catching fat and other cells that lead to plaque — needless to say this isn’t good — and you’ll face an increased risk of stroke and heart attack risk in the years to come, along with dementia, cancer, and other chronic diseases that occur when you don’t eat healthy throughout your lifetime.

Bottom Line: Eating a Plant-Based Diet Can Help Lower Stroke Risk

On that note, pass the plant-based chili, please.

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