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Tips on eating to avoid strokes and maximise health - Fact Sheet

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Tips on eating to avoid strokes and maximise health - Fact Sheet

Eating well and a healthy lifestyle play key roles in helping your brain to recover after an injury, and minimise the chances of further injury too.


Every ten minutes, an Australian suffers a stroke. With this comes not only the illness and hospitalisation that stroke brings, but also devastating fallout for the patient's friends and family. Spouses become carers, finances are stretched, and plans for the future can become unravelled.


However, there are many things that can be done to prevent strokes. Evidence shows that there are some dietary and lifestyle factors that can prevent stroke from occurring; or for stroke patients, reduce the risk of it happening again. Some of those factors include:

  • making proactive dietary changes
  • controlling blood pressure
  • reducing body weight if overweight
  • exercise
  • proactive nutrients such as fish oil.


Avoid processed foods
Take the advice of Michael Pollan, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This means eating foods as close to nature as possible. Just as our bodies are designed to exercise like a hunter-gatherer, they are also made to eat food as close to the natural source as possible. For example, choose whole grains / wholemeal breads rather than white, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, avocado, legumes, and nuts and seeds. Eat lean meats in moderation (a quarter of your main meal) rather than the main part
of the dish. Plant sources of protein such as legumes (baked beans, chick peas, lentils etc), as well as nuts and seeds are full of healthpromoting
nutrients. Fill half of the plate with vegetables or salad when preparing your main meal for the day.


Don't eat too much
The idea of not eating too much? Children are born with an innate ability to eat when they are hungry, and stop eating when they are full. Somewhere along the line we learn to ignore these messages from our body and eat too much, too often, particularly when something tastes good. Combine this with the refined Western diet full of added fats, sugars, salt and artificial flavours, and it is little wonder we have trouble keeping our weight under control. Trust your body to know how much food it needs,
and when you start feeling full, put down your fork and keep the rest as leftovers. Focus on these factors rather than counting grams of fat or calories, and your body (and mind) will thank you. Aim to fill the bulk of your diet with the above foods, and eat only small amounts of processed foods, refined (white) grains and breads, added sugars, and sweet drinks.


Some easy ways to help you achieve this:

  • Use bags of salad leaves / pre-chopped or frozen vegetables
  • Add canned legumes to meals (cheap too)
  • Keep a supply of easy to eat, portable fruit (e.g. grapes, bananas, apples, mandarins, strawberries)
  • Exchange refined cereal or processed snacks for nuts, fresh or dried fruit, and a cup of milk or yoghurt.


Fish oil
Years ago scientists discovered that groups such as the Eskimos had a very low risk of heart disease and stroke despite eating plenty of dietary fats. Their secret? Omega-3 fatty acids - the type of fat contained in oily fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel. These fats make blood vessel walls more elastic and less likely to develop vessel disease leading to stroke. Aim to eat fish two to three times per week, particularly the oily fish listed above. If you can't manage this, fish oil supplements are also effective - be sure to check with your pharmacist, dietitian or doctor regarding the dose that is right for you, taking into account your medical history.


Monitor blood pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) increases the risk of stroke. It is known as "the silent killer" as often people are not aware that their blood pressure is at a dangerous level. One third of adult Australians have high blood pressure. It is important (and painless) to monitor your blood pressure, and if it is high, talk to your doctor about how to manage it. Free blood pressure checks are available at pharmacies, or ask your GP. Lifestyle factors also affect hypertension - reducing salt in your diet, and losing excess weight help lower blood pressure.


If overweight, reduce body weight
Over half of the Australian population are overweight or obese. This can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and cardiovascular diseases. If you find it difficult to lose weight on your own, you are not alone! Weight change means changing long-term habits, which is hard, and often requires seeking help. Talk to someone about why it is difficult to maintain healthy eating, exercise, or a safe alcohol intake. Psychologists, life coaches, and dietitians can examine your habits and gradually change towards healthier alternatives. These professionals are often available at low or no cost through Medicare if referred by your GP. The good news is, even modest changes to weight can mean a lower health risk. Focus on small but positive changes to your lifestyle, and aim to sustain them over the long term.


This is one area where history is interesting. Consider the case of human beings - ten thousand years ago we were hunter-gatherers, exercising for an average of 2.5 hours per day. Our bodies are evolved to require this exercise for health, but we now have lifestyles that keep us relatively sedentary. While it is unrealistic to suggest that we all adopt a foraging lifestyle, we do need to accept that our bodies need exercise to be healthy. Aim for 30 minutes per day, broken into segments if that is more achievable. 


Try to add five minutes of movement to your day, such as using the stairs instead of the lift, gardening, kicking the ball with your kids, and strolling for 10 minutes during your lunch break. Daily exercise achieved! The American Heart Association suggests that for each hour of regular exercise you get, you'll gain about two hours of additional life expectancy, even if you don't start until middle age. Check with your doctor before embarking on an exercise program.


Reduce your risk of stroke by choosing just a couple of small changes that are achievable. Once these changes become habitual, feeling healthier will become the reward that helps to motivate a healthier lifestyle.

References and further information

Article written by Lisa Mahoney
Dietitian, APD BHealthSci (Nutrition and Dietetics)
Community Rehabilitation Program & Robina Hospital
Gold Coast Health Service District


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