Which Foods Affect Stroke Risk?

Why Is Diet And Stroke Risk So Confusing?

strokeOne day we are told vegetarian diets reduce our stroke risk. The next day we are told they increase stroke risk. It’s the same with red meat, dairy, and eggs. We keep getting mixed messages. It’s enough to make your head spin. Why is diet and stroke risk so confusing?

Part of the problem is that there are two distinct types of stroke. The technical names for them are ischemic stroke and hemorrhagic stroke.

An ischemic stroke occurs when an artery in the brain becomes blocked, shutting off blood flow and damaging part of the brain. This is usually caused by the gradual buildup of fatty deposits and cholesterol plaques in the arteries. When a blood clot forms and lodges in one of the narrowed arteries leading to the brain, an ischemic stroke occurs.

  • Ischemic strokes account for 87% of all strokes.
  • Ischemic strokes are associated with obesity, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking.

A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a weakened blood vessel bursts and bleeds into the surrounding region of the brain. Because our brains are surrounded by a protective skull, that blood has nowhere to go. Pressure from the buildup of blood damages brain cells in the vicinity of the bleed.

  • Hemorrhagic strokes account for only for only 15% of strokes but are responsible for 40% of stroke deaths.
  • The most common cause of a hemorrhagic stroke is the localized enlargement of a blood vessel due to chronic high blood pressure. This weakens the wall of the blood vessel, making it prone to rupturing.

Part of the confusion about diet and stroke risk is because many earlier studies did not distinguish between the two types of stroke.

  • If the studies just measured the incidence of stroke, the data were dominated by ischemic strokes (87% of strokes are ischemic).
  • However, if the studies focused on stroke deaths, hemorrhagic stroke made a larger contribution to the data set (40% of stroke deaths are hemorrhagic).

Fortunately, recent studies have started to focus on the effect of diet on ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes separately. However, many of those studies have been too small to accurately assess the effects of diet on hemorrhagic stroke.

The latest study (TYN Tong et al, European Heart Journal, ehaa007, published February 24, 2020) is one of the largest studies to look at the effect of diet on both kinds of stroke. It has enough patients in the hemorrhagic group to get an accurate estimate of the effect of diet on hemorrhagic stroke.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study analyzed data on diet and stroke from 418,329 participants in the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition). Although the study has cancer in the title, it actually investigated the effect of nutrition on multiple diseases (Presumably, the study title was chosen because EPIC is a more appealing acronym than EPID (European Prospective Investigation into Diseases and Nutrition)).

The participants were recruited from 9 European countries (Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK). The average age of participants was 50, and they were followed for an average of 12.7 years.

At the beginning of the study participants completed country-specific dietary and lifestyle questionnaires.

The dietary assessment was a food frequency questionnaire that asked participants about their dietary intake for the year prior to enrollment in the study. The food frequency data were used to estimate daily intake of red meat, processed meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dietary fiber (It measured total fiber and fiber from grains, fruits and vegetables individually).

The outcome measured was the incidence of ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes during the 12.7-year follow-up.

Which Foods Affect Stroke Risk?

Heart Healthy DietFor ischemic stroke:

  • Each 200 gram/day increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables decreased ischemic stroke risk by 13% (200 grams roughly corresponds to one large apple or one large orange without the skin).
  • Each 10 gram/day increase in consumption of fiber decreased ischemic stroke risk by 23%. Most of this decreased stroke risk was due to fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
    • Each 4 gram/day increase in fiber from whole grains decreased ischemic stroke risk by 10%.
    • Each 4 gram/day increase in fiber from fruits and vegetables decreased ischemic stroke risk by 12%.
  • Dairy foods decreased ischemic stroke risk with the following breakdown:
    • Each cup of milk decreased ischemic stroke risk by 5%.
    • Each half cup of yogurt decreased ischemic stroke risk by 9%.
    • Each ounce of cheese decreased ischemic stroke risk by 12%.
  • Each 50 grams/day (2 ounces) of red meat increased ischemic stroke risk by 14%.
    • However, red meat was only half as likely to increase risk of ischemic stroke when the diet was also rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

For hemorrhagic stroke:

  • Each 20 gram/day increase in consumption of eggs increased hemorrhagic stroke risk by 25% (20 grams roughly corresponds to about 1/2 of a small egg or 1/3 of a jumbo egg).
  • This study did not measure the effect of salt intake on hemorrhagic stroke risk.

No other foods measured in this study had a significant effect on hemorrhagic stroke risk.

high blood pressureHowever, hemorrhagic stroke is highly associated with high blood pressure. When we look at the influence of foods on high blood pressure, here are the Harvard School of Medicine recommendations for keeping blood pressure low:

  • Eat more fish, nuts and beans in place of high-fat meats.
  • Choose fruits and vegetables instead of sugary, salty snacks and desserts.
  • Select whole grains rather than refined grains.Eat fruit instead of drinking fruit juice.
  • Use unsaturated fats like olive, canola, soybean, peanut, corn or safflower oils instead of butter, coconut oil, or palm-kernel oil.
  • Use herbs, spices, vinegar, and other low-sodium flavorings instead of salt; Choose low-sodium foods whenever possible.

Why Is Diet And Stroke Risk So Confusing?

egg confusionAs I mentioned at the start of this article, part of the reason that the headlines about diet and stroke risk are so confusing is:

  • Many studies did not distinguish between the two types of stroke.
  • Other studies were too small to reliably estimate the effect of food on hemorrhagic stroke risk.

However, there are still some unexplained inconsistencies among recently published studies. It is these inconsistencies I would like to address. For example:

1) In a recent issue of Health Tips From the Professor I reported on a major study (500,000 people followed for 8.9 years) in China. That study came to the opposite conclusion about eggs and risk of hemorrhagic than the EPIC study I discussed above. It found:

  • People consuming one egg per day had a 26% decrease in hemorrhagic stroke risk and a 28% decrease in hemorrhagic stroke deaths compared to people who never or rarely consumed eggs.

In other words, the two studies came to opposite conclusions. In the China study eggs decreased risk of hemorrhagic stroke. In the European study (EPIC) eggs increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke. The reason for this discrepancy is not clear, but one can speculate it might be explained by differences in the underlying diets of the two countries:

  • In China the diet is primarily plant-based. The addition of an egg/day may provide needed protein, fat, and cholesterol (Some cholesterol is essential. We just overdo it in this country).
  • In Europe the diet is already high in protein, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Getting more of them from eggs may not be such a good thing.

In short, if your diet is primarily plant-based, the addition of an egg/day may be a good thing. However, if your diet is already high in meat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, the addition of an egg/day may not be a good thing.

Vegan Foods2) In another recent issue of Health Tips From the Professor I reported on the EPIC-Oxford study that claimed vegetarians had 20% increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke compared to meat eaters.

Interestingly, the EPIC-Oxford study represented a very small portion (~10%) of the overall EPIC study and differed from the rest of the EPIC study in two important ways.

  • It looked at the effect of diets rather than foods on stroke risk.
  • Oxford was the only one of the 22 research centers involved in the EPIC study to invite people following a vegetarian diet to enroll in the study, so it had a much higher proportion of vegetarians than other centers that participated in the study.

The current study did not find any evidence that fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, or whole grains influenced the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. In other words, in this much larger data set there was no evidence that the foods associated with a vegetarian diet increased hemorrhagic stroke risk.

However, most of the participants in larger EPIC study were also eating meats. They were not following a pure vegetarian diet.

As I said previously, “If the data on hemorrhagic stroke risk in the EPIC-Oxford study are true, it suggests it may not be a good idea to completely eliminate meat from our diet. However, you don’t need to add much meat to a vegetarian diet. The fish eaters in this study were consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day. That was enough to eliminate the increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke.”

What Does This Mean For You?

Questioning WomanFor ischemic stroke (blockage of blood flow to the brain), which is the most common form of stroke, the data are clear cut:

  • Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy foods are good for you. (Your mother was right.)
  • Red meat is not so good for you. However, the bad effect of red meat on ischemic stroke risk can be reduced by including plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet.
  • These conclusions are consistent with multiple previous studies, and the mechanisms of these effects are well established.

For hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding from a weakened blood vessel in the brain) the data are not as clear cut.

  • If you are consuming a primarily plant-based diet, eggs appear to reduce your risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • If you are consuming a diet with lots of meat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, adding eggs may increase your risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • A vegetarian diet may increase your risk of hemorrhagic stroke. But you don’t need to add much meat to a vegetarian diet. Consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day appears to be enough to eliminate the increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • The mechanisms of these effects of food on hemorrhagic stroke are unclear, so these conclusions may be modified by subsequent studies.

In terms of an overall take-home lesson on diet and stroke risk, my advice is: “A primarily plant-based diet is a good idea, but you don’t need to become a vegan purist. Nor do you want to follow fad diets that eliminate whole food groups. We have 5 food groups for a reason. Eliminating any of them may not be a good idea.”

The Bottom Line

A recent study examined the effect of various foods on the risk of the two major forms of stroke.

For ischemic stroke (blockage of blood flow to the brain), which is the most common form of stroke, the data are clear cut:

  • Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy foods are good for you. (Your mother was right.)
  • Red meat is not so good for you. However, the bad effect of red meat on ischemic stroke risk can be reduced by including plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet.
  • These conclusions are consistent with multiple previous studies, and the mechanisms of these effects are well established.

For hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding from a weakened blood vessel in the brain) the data are not as clear cut.

  • If you are consuming a primarily plant-based diet, eggs appear to reduce your risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • If you are consuming a diet with lots of meat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, adding eggs may increase your risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • A vegetarian diet may increase your risk of hemorrhagic stroke. But you don’t need to add much meat to a vegetarian diet. Consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day appears to be enough to eliminate the increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • The mechanisms of these effects of food on hemorrhagic stroke are unclear, so these conclusions may be modified by subsequent studies.

In terms of an overall take-home lesson on diet and stroke risk, my advice is: “A primarily plant-based diet is a good idea, but you don’t need to become a vegan purist. Nor do you want to follow fad diets that eliminate whole food groups. We have 5 food groups for a reason. Eliminating any of them may not be a good idea.”

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

Do Vegetarians Have A Higher Risk Of Stroke?

What Are The Benefits And Risks Of A Vegetarian Diet?

Vegetarian FoodsVegetarian diets are thought to be very healthy. Clinical studies show that vegetarian diets are associated with decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and much more. What’s not to like?

That’s why the recent headlines claiming that vegetarian diets may increase the risk of stroke were so surprising. Advocates of meat-heavy diets like the Paleo and Keto diets were overjoyed. These results fit in with their view that we should be eating more meat protein and less plant protein. Nutrition experts, on the other hand, were asking: “What’s going on?” “How can this be?”

Those of you who are regular readers of “Health Tips From the Professor” know that I am an advocate of primarily plant-based diets. Thus, I felt a responsibility to analyze the study (TYN Tong et al, British Medical Journal, 366: 14897, 2019) behind the headlines impartially and give you, my readers, clear guidelines for the healthiest possible diet.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical-studyLet’s start with some background:

·       A major study called the “European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition” (EPIC) has been underway since the early 90’s.

·       The British component of this study is known as the EPIC-Oxford study.

·       While the study has “cancer” in it’s title, it was designed to measure the impact of nutrition on many diseases. In this case, the study focused on heart disease and stroke.

·       Finally, enrollment in the EPIC-Oxford study was designed to give a high proportion of vegetarians in the study population.

The EPIC-Oxford study enrolled 48,188 participants with no previous history of heart disease, stroke, or angina between 1993 and 2001. A detailed diet analysis was performed upon enrollment and again in 2010. Based on these data, the participants were divided into three groups:

1)    Meat eaters (24,428 participants).

2)    Fish eaters (7,506 participants). This group consumed fish but no other meats. People with this eating style are often called pescatarians.

3)    Vegetarians (16, 254 participants). This group consumed dairy and eggs, but no meat. People with this eating style are often called lacto-ovo vegetarians.

4)    The diet analysis also identified participants who were vegans (no animal foods). However, this group was too small to obtain statistically significant comparisons, so they were included with the lacto-ovo vegetarians in the vegetarian group.

Data on heart disease and stroke were obtained from the UK’s health service records through March 31st, 2016. The average time of follow-up for participants in the study was 18.1 years.

Without going into greater detail, this was a very large, well-designed study.

How Did The Diets Of The Three Groups Compare?

balance scaleThe first step in analyzing this study is to ask how the diets of the three groups compared.

Compared to meat eaters, the fish eaters consumed:

·       No meat other than fish.

·       Slightly less milk and significantly more cheese.

·       Slightly more fruits & vegetables.

·       Significantly more legumes & soy foods, nuts & nut butter.

·       Slightly more carbohydrate and slightly less protein.

·       Slightly less saturated fat and slightly more polyunsaturated fat.

·       Around 260 fewer calories per day.

Compared to fish eaters, the vegetarians consumed:

·       No meat.

·       Slightly less milk & cheese.

·       About the same amount of fruits & vegetables.

·       Significantly more legumes & soy foods, nuts & nut butter.

·       Slightly more carbohydrate and slightly less protein.

·       About the same saturated and polyunsaturated fat.

·       Around 125 fewer calories per day.

On average, the vegetarians consumed about 1 cup of milk and one ounce of cheese per day. The fish eaters consumed 1.4 ounces of fish per day.

In terms of comparisons:

·       The biggest differences were between the fish eaters and the meat eaters. It would be fair to say that the fish eaters consumed a primarily plant-based diet with added fish and dairy.

·       The biggest differences between the vegetarians and fish eaters was that the fish eaters got a significant percentage of their protein from fish, while the vegetarians got a significant amount of their protein from plant sources. Otherwise, their diets were fairly comparable.

Finally, the 10-year follow-up diet analysis showed that most participants stuck with their initial diet.

Do Vegetarians Have A Higher Risk Of Stroke?

strokeNow, for the study results:

·       Compared to meat eaters, fish eaters had 13% lower risk of heart disease, and vegetarians had a 22% lower risk of heart disease.

o   For vegetarians this corresponds to 10 fewer cases of heart disease per 1,000 people over 10 years.

·       Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians had a 20% higher risk of stroke, mostly due to an increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke.

o   For vegetarians this corresponds to 3 additional cases of stroke per 1,000 people over 10 years.

·       The risk of stroke was essentially identical for fish eaters and meat eaters.

In many other aspects, vegetarians were healthier than meat-eaters. For example, they:

·       Weighed less.

·       Had lower blood pressure.

·       Had lower total and LDL cholesterol.

·       Were less likely to have developed diabetes during the study.

·       Were less likely to have required long-term treatment for other illnesses.

What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of The Study?

strengths-weaknessesThe strength of this study is obvious. It was a very large, well-designed study. The study also lasted a long time. Participants in the study were followed for almost 20 years.

There are two clear weaknesses, however:

1)    Numerous previous studies have confirmed that vegetarian diets decrease heart disease risk by about 20%. However, none of those previous studies have reported an increase in stroke risk. This study is an outlier.

2)    There is no clear mechanism that explains why a vegetarian diet might increase stroke risk. Based on previous observations that statin drugs increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke, the authors suggested the increased stroke risk might be due to lowered LDL cholesterol levels.

This mechanism is speculative at present. Furthermore, if true, it would suggest that any intervention (drug or nutritional) that lowers LDL cholesterol would increase stroke risk.

In the words of the authors:

·       “The present study has shown that British adults who were fish eaters or vegetarians had lower risks of heart disease than meat eaters, but that vegetarians had higher risks of stroke.

·       Future work should include further measurements…to identify which factors may cause the observed associations. [In plain English: We need to understand how vegetarian diets might increase stroke risk before we put too much weight on the results of this study.]

·       Additional studies in other large-scale cohorts with a high proportion of non-meat eaters are needed to confirm the generalizability of these results and assess their relevance for clinical practice and general health.” [In plain English: More studies are needed to confirm this observation before we start changing our recommendations about what constitutes a healthy diet.]

What Are The Benefits And Risks Of A Vegetarian Diet?

benefits-risksLet’s assume for a minute that the results of this study are accurate and take a closer look at the benefits and risks of a vegetarian diet. Here is my assessment:

1)    This report is troubling, but it may not be correct. The association of vegetarian diets with a slight increase in stroke risk has only been seen in a single study. This study needs to be confirmed before we become too concerned about vegetarianism increasing stroke risk.

2)    On the balance, vegetarian diets should still be considered very healthy. They lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, some cancers, inflammatory diseases and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

3)    However, I have often said that we have 5 food groups for a reason, and it is not a good idea to eliminate whole food groups. In the past, I have used that statement to critique diets that leave out important plant food groups like fruit, whole grains, and legumes.

If the data on stroke risk in this study are true, it suggests it might also not be a good idea to leave out meat. However, you don’t need a lot of meat. The fish eaters in this study were consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day. That was enough to eliminate the increased risk of stroke.

4)    In addition, you don’t have to be a vegan purist to enjoy the health benefits of a primarily plant-based diet. As I describe in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, primarily plant-based diets ranging from vegan through pescatarian and semi-vegetarian to Mediterranean and DASH are all incredibly healthy.

I personally follow a semi-vegetarian diet but often recommend Mediterranean and DASH diets to others because they are the easiest primarily plant-based diets for the average American to follow.

5)    Finally, if you have a family history, or are at high risk, of stroke, I recommend prudence until we know more. You may wish to adopt a version of primarily plant-based diets that incorporates some meat (That would be in the pescatarian to DASH range of primarily plant-based diets). Your heart will thank you, and you won’t increase your risk of stroke.

The Bottom Line

A recent study enrolled 48,188 British adults; divided them into meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians; followed them for 18.1 years; and looked at their risk for heart disease and stroke. The results were:

·       Compared to meat eaters, fish eaters had 13% lower risk of heart disease, and vegetarians had a 22% lower risk of heart disease.

o   For vegetarians this corresponds to 10 fewer cases of heart disease per 1,000 people over 10 years.

·       Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians had a 20% higher risk of stroke, mostly due to an increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke.

o   For vegetarians this corresponds to 3 additional cases of stroke per 1,000 people over 10 years.

·       The risk of stroke was essentially identical for fish eaters and meat eaters.

Here is my perspective:

1)    This report is troubling, but it may not be correct. The association of vegetarian diets with a slight increase in stroke risk has only been seen in a single study. This study needs to be confirmed before we become too concerned about vegetarianism increasing stroke risk.

2)    On the balance, vegetarian diets should still be considered very healthy. They lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, some cancers, inflammatory diseases and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

3)    However, I have often said that we have 5 food groups for a reason, and it is not a good idea to eliminate whole food groups. In the past, I have used that statement to critique diets that leave out important plant food groups like fruit, whole grains, and legumes.

If the data on stroke risk in this study are true, it suggests it might also not be a good idea to leave out meat. However, you don’t need a lot of meat. The fish eaters in this study were consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day. That was enough to eliminate the increased risk of stroke.

4)    In addition, you don’t have to be a vegan purist to enjoy the health benefits of a primarily plant-based diet. As I describe in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths” (https://slayingthefoodmyths.com), primarily plant-based diets ranging from vegan through pescatarian (the fish eaters in this study) and semi-vegetarian to Mediterranean and DASH are all incredibly healthy.

I personally follow a semi-vegetarian diet but often recommend Mediterranean and DASH diets to others because they are the easiest primarily plant-based diets for the average American to follow.

5)    Finally, if you have a family history, or are at high risk, of stroke, I recommend prudence until we know more. You may wish to adopt a version of primarily plant-based diets that incorporates some meat (That would be in the pescatarian to DASH range of primarily plant-based diets). Your heart will thank you, and you won’t increase your risk of stroke.

For more details on the study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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