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.
01. 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.
02. 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 badSmoked 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.How to Tell if Someone Is Having a Stroke
03. Diet soda
Although replacing sugary drinks with diet soda seems like a smart solution for
keeping weight down -- a heart-healthy goal -- it turns out diet soda is likely
a major bad guy when it comes to stroke.
Why it's bad.
People who drink a diet soda a day may up their stroke risk by 48 percent. A
Columbia University study presented at the American Stroke Association's 2011
International Stroke Conference followed 2,500 people ages 40 and older and
found that daily diet soda drinkers had 60 percent more strokes, heart attacks,
and coronary artery disease than those who didn't drink diet soda. Researchers
don't know exactly how diet soda ups stroke risk -- and are following up with
further studies -- but nutritionists are cautioning anyone concerned about
stroke to cut out diet soda pop.
What to do
Substitute more water for soda in your daily diet. It's the healthiest
thirst-quencher by far, researchers say. If you don't like water, try lemonade,
iced tea, or juice.
04. Red meat
This winter, when the respected journal Stroke published a study showing that
women who consumed a large portion of red meat each day had a 42-percent higher
incidence of stroke, it got nutrition experts talking. The information that red
meat, with its high saturated fat content, isn't healthy for those looking to
prevent heart disease and stroke wasn't exactly news. But the percentage
increase (almost 50 percent!) was both startling and solid; the researchers
arrived at their finding after following 35,000 Swedish women for ten years.
Why it's bad
Researchers have long known that the saturated fat in red meat raises the risk
of stroke and heart disease by gradually clogging arteries with a buildup of
protein plaques. Now it turns out that hemoglobin, the ingredient that gives red
meat its high iron content, may pose a specific danger when it comes to stroke.
Researchers are investigating whether blood becomes thicker and more viscous as
a result of the consumption of so-called heme iron, specifically upping the
chance of strokes.What to doAim to substitute more poultry -- particularly white meat -- and fish, which are
low in heme iron, for red meat. Also, choose the heart-healthiest sources of
protein whenever you can, especially beans, legumes, nuts, tofu, and nonfat
05. Canned soup and prepared foods
Whether it's canned soup, canned spaghetti, or healthy-sounding frozen dinners,
prepared foods and mixes rely on sodium to increase flavor and make processed
foods taste fresher. Canned soup is cited by nutritionists as the worst
offender; one can of canned chicken noodle soup contains more than 1,100 mg of
sodium, while many other varieties, from clam chowder to simple tomato, have
between 450 and 800 mg per serving. Compare that to the American Heart and
Stroke Association's recommendation of less than1,500 mg of sodium daily and
you'll see the problem. In fact, a nutritionist-led campaign, the National Salt
Reduction Initiative, calls on food companies to reduce the salt content in
canned soup and other products by 20 percent in the next two years.
Why it's bad
Salt, or sodium as it's called on food labels, directly affects stroke risk. In
one recent study, people who consumed more than 4,000 mg of sodium daily had
more than double the risk of stroke compared to those who ate 2,000 mg or less.
Yet the Centers for Disease Control estimate that most Americans eat close to
3,500 mg of sodium per day. Studies show that sodium raises blood pressure, the
primary causative factor for stroke. And be warned: Sodium wears many tricky
disguises, which allow it to hide in all sorts of foods that we don't
necessarily think of as salty. Some common, safe-sounding ingredients that
really mean salt:
MSG (monosodium glutamate)
What to do
Make your own homemade soups and entrees, then freeze individual serving-sized
portions. Buy low-sodium varieties, but read labels carefully, since not all
products marked "low sodium" live up to that promise.