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Diet and Stroke

5 Foods That Can Trigger a Stroke

By , Caring.com senior editor
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doughnut

Few things feel more terrifying and random than a stroke, which can strike without warning. And fear of stroke -- when a blood vessel in or leading to the brain bursts or is blocked by a blood clot, starving brain cells of oxygen and nutrients -- is well founded. After all, stroke is the number-three killer in the U.S., affecting more than 700,000 people each year. Here are five foods that cause the damage that leads to stroke.

1. Crackers, chips, and store-bought pastries and baked goods

Muffins, doughnuts, chips, crackers, and many other baked goods are high in trans fats, which are hydrogenated oils popular with commercial bakeries because they stay solid at room temperature, so the products don't require refrigeration. Also listed on labels as "partially hydrogenated" or hydrogenated oils, trans fats are found in all kinds of snack foods, frozen foods, and baked goods, including salad dressings, microwave popcorn, stuffing mixes, frozen tater tots and French fries, cake mixes, and whipped toppings. They're also what makes margarine stay in a solid cube. The worst offenders are fried fast foods such as onion rings, French fries, and fried chicken.

Why it's bad

For years scientists have known trans fats are dangerous artery-blockers, upping the concentrations of lipids and bad cholesterol in the blood and lowering good cholesterol. Now we can add stroke to the list of dangers. This year researchers at the University of North Carolina found that women who ate 7 grams of trans fat each day -- about the amount in two doughnuts or half a serving of French fries -- had 30 percent more strokes (the ischemic type, caused by blocked blood flow to the brain) than women who ate just 1 gram a day. Another recent study, also in women, found that trans fats promoted inflammation and higher levels of C-reactive protein, which have been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

What to do

Aim to limit trans fats to no more than 1 or 2 grams a day -- and preferably none. Avoid fast-food French fries and other fried menu items and study packaged food labels closely. Even better, bake your own cookies, cakes, and other snacks. When you can't, search out "health-food" alternative snacks, such as Terra brand potato chips and traditional whole grain crackers such as those made by Finn, Wasa, AkMak, Ryvita, and Lavasch.

2. Smoked and processed meats

Whether your weakness is pastrami, sausage, hot dogs, bacon, or a smoked turkey sandwich, the word from the experts is: Watch out.

Why it's bad

Smoked and processed meats are nasty contributors to stroke risk in two ways: The preserving processes leave them packed with sodium, but even worse are the preservatives used to keep processed meats from going bad. Sodium nitrate and nitrite have been shown by researchers to directly damage blood vessels, causing arteries to harden and narrow. And of course damaged, overly narrow blood vessels are exactly what you don't want if you fear stroke.

Many studies have linked processed meats to coronary artery disease (CAD); one meta-analysis in the journal Circulation calculated a 42-percent increase in coronary heart disease for those who eat one serving of processed meat a day. Stroke is not the only concern for salami fans; cancer journals have reported numerous studies in the past few years showing that consumption of cured and smoked meats is linked with increased risk of diabetes and higher incidences of numerous types of cancer, including leukemia.

What to do

If a smoked turkey or ham sandwich is your lunch of choice, try to vary your diet, switching to tuna, peanut butter, or other choices several days a week. Or cook turkey and chicken yourself and slice it thin for sandwiches.