Plant-based diets lower risk of stroke — but it depends on the quality of your food

BOSTON — Plant-based diets continue to grow in popularity among Americans, and experts say they may do more for your body than slim your waistline. Eating larger quantities of nutritious plant-based meals and smaller quantities of unhealthy plant-based options lowers stroke risk, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health scientists.

According to their research, plant-based dieters can reduce stroke risk by 10% by making smarter choices. That means consuming more leafy vegetables, whole grains, and beans, and fewer processed grains, starches, and added sugars

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

Greener diets, according to accumulating research, could slash the risk of various diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. The evidence regarding the effects of a plant-based diet on the incidence of stroke, however, was limited, with mixed results from the little research that has been done.

Using health records from multiple study databases, researchers examined details of 209,508 males and females. All participants did not have cancer nor heart disease during the time the study began. Over 25 years of data were collected on all participants. Roughly every three years until 2012, each participant answered questions regarding their diets.

For plant-based dieters, researchers say that the caliber of greens and overall diet was dictated by the quality of nutrients within the foods they ate. This study included vegetarians, who eat little to no fish or meat, and non-vegetarians.

Researchers say a diet high in nutritious plant-based foods was linked to a small reduction in the chance of having an ischemic stroke, which is the most frequent kind. Ischemic stroke occurs as a result of a disruption in the blood flow to the brain. Hemorrhagic stroke, caused by the bursting of an artery, is not linked to a nutritious plant-based diet, they say.

The study shows no link between consuming a vegetarian diet and a lower risk of stroke, although there were very few vegetarians in the study. Researchers believe conflicting results from similar studies were caused by the high consumption of poorly nutritional plant-based foods in the participants’ diets.

“Many individuals have been increasing the amount of plant-based components in their diet,” says study co-author Kathryn Rexrode, associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “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.”

The study is published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.