How Diet Affects Your Stroke Risk

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Published on October 29, 2020

How Diet Affects Your Stroke Risk

Photo of a couple preparing food in a kitchenHow much does the food you eat affect your stroke risk? “Your risk of stroke is affected by some of the same factors that play a role in heart disease, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, family history, age, how much exercise you do, tobacco use and even what you eat,” says Tina Ng MD, a vascular surgeon at PIH Health. This means that your diet plays a bigger role in your risk of stroke than you may have thought.

Here are three small shifts you can make in your daily eating pattern that can add up to big heart benefits, lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Go Easy on the Salt

High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke and it’s the most controllable risk factor. Too much sodium stresses the blood vessels and can cause high blood pressure. This can eventually cause those blood vessels to become blocked or burst. If this happens to a blood vessel leading to the brain, it can cause a stroke.

Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, it’s important to be mindful of your sodium intake. Most of the sodium we consume comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant foods—meaning we don’t even know it’s there. Some of your daily sodium intake comes from natural food sources and the rest is added during cooking or at the table. To lower your sodium intake:

  • Read labels to see how much sodium is in a packaged food (even foods that don’t taste salty can have a lot of sodium)
  • Choose low sodium foods or those with no salt added when possible
  • Limit restaurant meals or ask if food can be prepared with little or no salt
  • Season foods with fresh herbs, spices and salt-free seasoning blends
  • Always taste food before adding salt

Switch Up Your Fats

Too much saturated fat can raise your blood cholesterol levels. If your LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) is high, you are at a greater risk for heart disease and stroke.

Saturated fat is mostly found in animal-based foods, like meat and dairy products. It is also found in palm oil, palm kernel oil, coconut oil, fried foods and many baked goods. Replacing foods high in saturated fat with lower fat options or with foods that contain unsaturated fat may lower cholesterol and stroke risk. Try these swaps:

  • Replace butter with olive oil when cooking
  • Select lean cuts of poultry, beef and pork
  • Eat more seafood and plant-based foods in place of meat
  • Choose low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese
  • When preparing food, bake, grill, broil or roast instead of frying

Reel in the Seafood

As mentioned above, eating more fish in place of meat is one way to reduce the saturated fat in your diet. All types of seafood are low in saturated fat, including those referred to as “fatty” fish, like salmon, mackerel and tuna (they are a great source of omega-3 fats that are linked to lower blood pressure and improved blood vessel function). Try some of these options:

  • Use cod, haddock or tilapia on taco night
  • Serve cooked shrimp with pasta
  • Mix plain or seasoned tuna in a salad
  • Thread salmon onto skewers when making kabobs

These simple tips can help you reach a heart-healthy diet that also reduces your risk of stroke. To learn about heart and vascular care at PIH Health, visit

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