Do Whole Grains Keep Diabetes Away?

Are Whole Grains Healthy? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

deceptionLow carb enthusiasts will tell you that carbohydrates are the villain. They tell you that cutting carbohydrates out of your diet will reduce your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

If they limited their list of villainous foods to highly processed foods with white flour and/or added sugars, many nutrition experts would agree with them. There is widespread agreement in the nutrition community that we eat far too much of these foods.

However, I don’t have to tell you that many low carb diets also eliminate whole grains, fruits, and beans from their diets based solely on the carbohydrate content of these foods. Is this good advice? Is there any data to back up this claim?

The short answer is no. Last week I shared a study showing that fruits reduced your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

This week I will review a study looking at the effect of whole grain consumption on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study combined data from women in the Nurses’ Health Study (1984-2014) and the Nurses’ Health Study II (1991-2017), and men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (1986-2016). There were 158,259 women and 36,525 men in these three studies.

None of the participants had type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or cancer at the time they entered the studies.

At the beginning of each study and every 4 years later the participants were asked to fill out a food frequency questionnaire to collect information about their usual diet over the past year. Validation studies showed that the diets of the participants changed little over the interval of the studies. [Note: This is a strength of these studies. Many clinical studies only collect dietary data at the beginning of the study, so there is no way of knowing whether the participant’s diets changed over time.]

The participants in these studies were followed for an average of 24 years. They were sent follow-up questionnaires every two years to collect information on diseases they had been diagnosed with over the past two years. Participants who reported type 2 diabetes were sent a supplementary questionnaire to confirm the diagnosis.

This study measured the effect of whole grain consumption, and frequently consumed whole grain foods, on the long term (24 year) risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The data were adjusted for multiple possible confounding variables (other factors that might affect the risk of developing type 2 diabetes) including age, ethnicity, smoking status, alcohol intake, multivitamin use, healthy eating index (a measure of how healthy the overall diet was), caloric intake, obesity, family history of diabetes, and use of oral contraceptives or postmenopausal hormones.

In addition, a stratified analysis was performed to assess the extent to which obesity, physical activity, smoking status, and family history of diabetes influenced the outcome.

In short, this was a very rigorous and well-controlled study.

Do Whole Grains Keep Diabetes Away?

Whole GrainsTotal whole grain consumption was divided into five groups ranging from 2 servings per day to < 0.1 serving per day. When participants with the highest whole grain intake were compared to those with the lowest whole grain intake:

  • Whole grain consumption was associated with a 29% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
    • The association between whole grain consumption and reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes was stronger for lean individuals (45% reduction in risk) than for overweight (34% reduction in risk) or obese individuals (23% reduction in risk).
    • The association between whole grain consumption and reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes was not affected by physical activity, smoking status, or family history of diabetes.

When they looked at the entire range of whole grain intake among participants in the study:

  • The risk reduction for developing type 2 diabetes was nonlinear.
    • The greatest portion of risk reduction (30% decreased risk) occurred between 0 and 2 servings/day.
    • However, the reduction in risk continued to decrease at a slower rate up to 4.5 servings/day (38% decreased risk), the highest intake recorded for participants in this study.

When they looked at the most frequently consumed whole grain foods and compared the risk of developing type 2 diabetes for participants consuming one or more servings per day compared with less than 1 serving per month:

  • People consuming whole grain cold breakfast cereals were 19% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
  • People consuming whole grain breads were 21% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
  • People consuming popcorn were 8% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

Once again, the risk reduction was nonlinear.

  • For whole grain cold breakfast cereals risk reduction plateaued at around 0.5 servings per day.
  • For whole grain breads the greatest portion of risk reduction occurred at around 0.5 servings per day (17% decreased risk), but the reduction in risk continued to decrease at a slower rate up to 4 servings/day (28% decreased risk).
  • For popcorn, the risk reduction curve was non-linear. There was a slight, non-significant, decrease in risk at about 0.2 servings per day, followed by a steady increase in risk up to 1.75 servings per day (24% increased risk).

When they looked at less frequently consumed whole grain foods and compared the risk of developing type 2 diabetes for participants consuming two or more servings per week compared with less than 1 serving per month:

  • People consuming oatmeal were 21% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
  • People consuming brown rice were 12% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
  • People consuming added bran were 15% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

There were not enough people consuming these whole grains for the investigators to determine how many servings were optimal.

The authors concluded, “Higher consumption of total whole grains and several commonly eaten whole grain foods, including whole grain breakfast cereal, oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and added bran, was significantly associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. These findings provide further support for the current recommendations of increasing whole grain consumption as part of a healthy diet for the prevention of type 2 diabetes.”

Are Whole Grains Healthy?

Question MarkThis is a very impressive study. As described above, it is a large (194,784 participants), long lasting (24 years), and well-designed study. With this data in mind, we can answer several important questions.

Are Whole Grains Healthy?

This study explodes the myth that you should avoid whole grains if you want to prevent diabetes. Instead, the study shows that whole grain consumption decreases your risk of developing type-2 diabetes.

I recently reviewed another large, well-designed study showing that whole grain consumption reduces your risk of dying from heart disease, cancer, and all causes combined.

So, clearly whole grains are good for you. They should be an important part of your diet.

Which Whole Grains Are Healthy?

According to this study, whole grain breakfast cereals, whole grain breads, oatmeal, brown rice, and bran are all healthy. All of them significantly reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Other whole grains are likely to be healthy too, but Americans consume so little of them, they could not be analyzed in this study.

However, there are some caveats:

  • You have to read labels carefully. Unless it says “100% whole grain”, it probably contains more refined grains than whole grains.
    • Yes, food manufacturers are intentionally deceptive. Who knew?
  • You have to look at the food, not just “whole grain” on the label.
    • It is hard to imagine, but Dr. Kellogg originally created breakfast cereals as health food. However, today many “whole grain” cereals are loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients. They are highly processed foods that are anything but healthy.
    • The case of popcorn is a perfect example. Popcorn is loaded with fiber. It should reduce your risk of diabetes. However, in this study it increased the risk of diabetes. That’s because 70% of the popcorn that Americans consume is purchased either pre-popped or ready to pop. It contains unhealthy ingredients like salt, butter, sugar, trans fats, and artificial flavors. It is a highly processed food. Air popped popcorn without the added ingredients is probably very healthy.

Why Are Whole Grains Healthy?

Dr. Strangelove and his buddies have told you to avoid all grains because they contain carbohydrates that are converted to sugar. That is good advice for refined grains. Not only are they rapidly converted to sugar. But they are also found in highly processed foods along with sugar, fat, and a witch’s brew of chemicals.

However, whole grains are different. Yes, whole grains are carbohydrate-rich foods, and the carbohydrate is converted to sugar during digestion. But:

  • They also contain fiber, which slows the digestion of the carbohydrate and delays the absorption of the sugar released during digestion.
  • The carbohydrate is trapped in a cellular matrix, which must be digested before the carbohydrate can be released.

In addition:

  • Whole grains contain nutrients and phytonutrients not found in refined grains.
  • The fiber in whole grains supports the growth of friendly bacteria in the gut.

How Many Whole Grain Foods Should I Be Eating?

This study found that you get the biggest “bang for your buck” when you go from 0 to around 2 servings per day of whole foods.

  • If you aren’t fond of whole grain foods, that is good news. It is also in line with USDA recommendation that half the grains we eat should be whole grains. You don’t need to eat whole grains with every meal.
  • If you are a purist, you can reduce your diabetes risk even more by increasing your whole grain intake up to at least 4.5 servings per day, the highest intake measured in this study.

Are Low Carb Diets Healthy?

Low carb diets may be effective for short term weight loss, but there is no evidence that they are healthy long term. And, because they cut out one or more food groups many experts feel they are likely to be unhealthy long term.

My advice is to forget “low carb” and focus on “healthy carb” instead.

  • Eliminate refined carbs and the highly processed foods they are found in.
  • Include fruits, whole grains, and beans as part of your diet. They are high carbohydrate foods, but, as this and other studies have shown, the carbohydrates in those foods are healthy carbs.

The Bottom Line

Low carb enthusiasts tell you to eliminate whole grains from your diet if you want to reduce your risk of developing diabetes. Is this true? Is it good advice?

A recent study put this advice to the test. It was a large (194,784 participants), long lasting (24 years), and well-designed study. Here is what the study found.

When participants with the highest whole grain intake were compared to those with the lowest whole grain intake:

  • Whole grain consumption was associated with a 29% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

When they looked at the entire range of whole grain intake among participants in the study:

  • The risk reduction for developing type 2 diabetes was nonlinear.
  • The greatest portion of risk reduction (30% decreased risk) occurred between 0 and 2 servings/day.
  • But the reduction in risk continued to decrease at a slower rate up to 4.5 servings/day (38% decreased risk), the highest intake recorded for participants in this study.

When they looked at individual foods, whole grain breakfast cereals, whole grain bread, oatmeal, brown rice, and added bran all reduced diabetes risk.

The authors concluded, “Higher consumption of total whole grains and several commonly eaten whole grain foods, including whole grain breakfast cereal, oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and added bran, was significantly associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. These findings provide further support for the current recommendations of increasing whole grain consumption as part of a healthy diet for the prevention of type 2 diabetes.”

For more details about this study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Should I Avoid Whole Grains?

Will Whole Grains Kill Me?

Whole GrainsIt seems like just yesterday that health experts all agreed that whole grains were good for us. After all:

  • They are a good source of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, and the minerals magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, and selenium.
  • Their fiber fills you up, so you are less likely to overeat. This helps with weight control.
  • Their fiber also supports the growth of friendly bacteria in your gut.

In fact, the USDA still recommends that half of the grains we eat should be whole grains. And, outside experts, not influenced by the food industry, feel this recommendation is too low. They feel most of the grains we eat should be whole grains. Foods made from refined grains should be considered as only occasional treats.

Then the low-carb craze came along. Diets like Paleo and Keto were telling you to avoid all grains, even whole grains. Even worse, Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues were telling you whole grains contained something called lectins that were bad for you. Suddenly, whole grains went from being heroes to being villains.

You are probably asking, “Should I avoid whole grains?” What is the truth? Perhaps the best way to resolve this debate is to ask, how healthy are people who consume whole grains for many years? This week I share a recent study (G Zong et al, Circulation, 133: 2370-2380, 2016) that answers that very question.

How Was The Study Done?

This study was a meta-analysis of 14 clinical trials that:

  • Enrolled a total of 786,076 participants.
  • Obtained a detailed diet history at baseline.
  • Followed the participants for an average of 15 years (range = 6-28 years).
  • Determined the effect of whole grain consumption on the risk of death from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.

Will Whole Grains Kill Me?

deadDr. Strangelove and his colleagues are claiming that whole grains cause inflammation, which increases your risk of heart disease and cancer. Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in this country. In fact, according to the CDC, heart disease and cancer accounted for 44% of all deaths in the US in 2017.

Therefore, if Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues were correct, consumption of whole grains should increase the risk of deaths due to heart disease and cancer – and increase the risk of death due to all causes.

That is not what this study showed.

When the highest whole grain intake (5 servings/day) was compared with the lowest whole grain intake (0 servings/day), whole grain consumption reduced the risk of death from:

  • Heart disease by 18%.
  • Cancer by 12%.
  • All causes by 16%.

Furthermore, the effect of whole grains on mortality showed an inverse dose response. Simply put, the more thumbs upwhole grains people consumed, the lower the risk of deaths from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.

However, the dose response was not linear. Simply going from 0 servings of whole grains to one serving of whole grains reduced the risk of death from.

  • Heart disease by 9%.
  • Cancer by 5%.
  • All causes by 7%.

The authors concluded: “Whole grain consumption was inversely associated with mortality in a dose-response manner, and the association with cardiovascular mortality was particularly strong and robust. These observations endorse current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing whole grain intake to replace refined grains to facilitate long-term health and to help prevent premature death.”

The authors went on to say: “Low-carbohydrate diets that ignore the health benefits of whole grain foods should be adopted with caution because they have been linked to higher cardiovascular risk and mortality.”

Should I Avoid Whole Grains?

Question MarkAs for the original question, “Should I avoid whole grains?”, the answer appears to be a clear, “No”.

The strengths of this study include the large number of participants (786,076) and the demonstration of a clear dose-response relationship between whole grain intake and reduced mortality.

This study is also consistent with several other studies that show whole grain consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer – and appears to lead to a longer, healthier life.

In short, it appears that Dr. Strangelove and the low-carb enthusiasts are wrong. Whole grains aren’t something to avoid. They reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. And they reduce the risk of premature death. We should be eating more whole grains, not less.

However, the authors did point out that this study has some weaknesses:

  • It is an association study, which does not prove cause and effect.
  • Study participants who consumed more whole grains also tended to consume more fruits and vegetables – and less red meat, sodas, and highly processed foods.

However, I would argue the second point is a strength, not a weakness. We need to give up the idea that certain foods or food groups are “heroes” or “villains”. We know that primarily plant-based diets like the Mediterranean and DASH diets are incredibly healthy. Does it really matter how much of those health benefits come from whole grains and how much comes from fruits and vegetables?

The Bottom Line

Dr. Strangelove and low-carb enthusiasts have been telling us we should avoid all grains, including whole grains. Is that good advice?

If Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues were correct, consumption of whole grains should increase the risk of deaths due to the top two killer diseases, heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, because heart disease and cancer account for 44% of all deaths in this country, whole grain consumption should also increase the risk of death due to all causes.

A recent study showed the exact opposite. The study showed:

When the highest whole grain intake (5 servings/day) was compared with the lowest whole grain intake (0 servings/day), whole grain consumption reduced the risk of death from:

  • Heart disease by 18%.
  • Cancer by 12%.
  • All causes by 16%.

Furthermore, the effect of whole grains on mortality showed an inverse dose response. Simply put, the more whole grains people consumed, the lower the risk of deaths from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.

However, the dose response was not linear. Simply going from 0 servings of whole grains to one serving of whole grains reduced the risk of death from.

  • Heart disease by 9%.
  • Cancer by 5%.
  • All causes by 7%.

The authors concluded: “Whole grain consumption was inversely associated with mortality in a dose-response manner, and the association with cardiovascular mortality was particularly strong and robust. These observations endorse current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing whole grain intake to replace refined grains to facilitate long-term health and to help prevent premature death.”

The authors went on to say: “Low-carbohydrate diets that ignore the health benefits of whole grain foods should be adopted with caution because they have been linked to higher cardiovascular risk and mortality.”

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Does Fiber Reduce Breast Cancer Risk?

Start Young And Finish Strong

Vegan FoodsThe idea that dietary fiber reduces the risk of breast cancer has been around for a long time. But it is controversial. It has been difficult to prove.

Part of the difficulty arises from what scientists call confounding variables. What do I mean by confounding variables? Let me explain.

A high fiber diet is usually a primarily plant-based diet. Plant foods contain much more than just fiber. They are full of antioxidants and phytonutrients. A primarily plant-based diet is, by definition, low in refined grains. It is usually low in sugar and saturated fat as well.

People who eat primarily plant-based diets are often health conscious. They tend to exercise more, weigh less, and smoke less than the general public.

Each of these things are confounding variables. They could reduce the risk of breast cancer on their own. That confounds (makes it more difficult to interpret) the data. Was the reduction in breast cancer risk due to the high fiber diet or to these factors that go along with a high fiber diet?

It is possible to correct for these confounding variables statistically, but that requires a very large study (a large population group) for the correction to be accurate. Large studies are expensive. Thus, you tend to end up with lots of small studies. And once they have been corrected for confounding variables, small studies give conflicting results. Some show a benefit of fiber. Some do not.

That is why this study (MS Farvid et al, Cancer, DOI: 10.1002/cncr.32816) is important. It is a meta-analysis of 20 clinical studies with almost 2 million women.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe meta-analysis combined data from 20 clinical studies with 1,994,910 women. Fiber intake was calculated from a food frequency questionnaire administered at the beginning of the study for all except one study that used 24-hour dietary records administered at the beginning of the study.

  • Study duration ranged from 2 to 20 years. Nine of the studies (1.37 million women) lasted for 10 years or more.
  • Four studies reported results for premenopausal breast cancer, fifteen studies reported results for postmenopausal breast cancer, and one study reported results for both.

Does Fiber Reduce Breast Cancer Risk?

breast cancerAfter correcting for confounding variables, the results of the study were as follows:

  • When comparing the highest intake with the lowest intake, total fiber consumption was associated with an 8% lower risk of breast cancer.
  • The effect was stronger for premenopausal breast cancer (18%) than for postmenopausal breast cancer (9%).
  • The effect was greater with soluble fiber (10% decreased risk) than for insoluble fiber (7% decreased risk).
    • Note: All plant foods contain a mixture of soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. However, the common foods richest in soluble fiber are fruits, oatmeal, nuts, beans, peas, and lentils.

The authors concluded, “A random-effects meta-analysis of prospective observational studies demonstrated that high total fiber consumption was associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. This finding was consistent for soluble fiber as well as for women with premenopausal and postmenopausal cancer.”

Start Young And Finish Strong

Mother & Daughter Eating ApplesAn 8% risk reduction doesn’t seem like very much, but the 18% risk reduction in premenopausal breast cancer caught my eye. With a little digging I found a study (MS Farvid et al, Pediatrics 137, March 2016: e20151226) that focused on the effect of fiber intake in young women on their subsequent risk developing both premenopausal and postmenopausal breast cancer. This was, in fact, one of the studies included in the meta-analysis I described above.

This study followed 90,534 women (mean age 36 years) for 20 years. The women competed a food frequency questionnaire at enrollment and every four years thereafter. They also completed a questionnaire about their diet during their teenage years.

When comparing the highest versus the lowest fiber intake:

  • High fiber intake reduced total breast cancer risk by 19%.
    • Postmenopausal breast cancer risk was reduced by 13%.
    • Premenopausal breast cancer risk was reduced by 23%.

Interestingly, only 34% of women who consumed high fiber diets during their teenage years continued to consume high fiber diets as young adults. However, high fiber diets in the teenage years were important. When they looked at teenage diets:

  • High fiber intake reduced total breast cancer risk by 16%.
    • Postmenopausal breast cancer risk was reduced by 15%.
    • Premenopausal breast cancer risk was reduced by 25%.

Other important observations from this study were:

  • There was a 13% decrease in breast cancer risk for every 10 gram increase in fiber intake.
    • 10 grams of fiber is equivalent to one apple plus two slices of 100% whole wheat toast or half a cup of cooked kidney beans plus half a cup of cooked cauliflower or squash.
  • Both soluble fiber (14% decreased risk) and insoluble fiber (20% decreased risk) were effective.
    • In terms of foods, the most significant effects were seen with fruits and vegetables.

The authors concluded, “Our findings support the hypothesis that higher fiber intakes reduce breast cancer risk and suggest that intake during adolescence and early adulthood may be particularly important.”

What Does This Mean For You?

Questioning WomanAs I said before, an 8% decrease in breast cancer risk may not sound like much. You might be tempted to say, “Why bother? Why should I give up my favorite processed and convenience foods and switch to a more whole food, plant-based diet?”

Here are some thoughts to consider:

1) As I mentioned above, there are side benefits to a plant-based diet.

    • Plant based diets have a lower caloric density, so you are less likely to be overweight.
    • Your intake of antioxidants and phytonutrients is increased.
    • Plant foods feed beneficial gut bacteria.
    • Your diet is likely to be lower in sugar, highly processed foods, and saturated fat.

All these factors decrease your risk of developing breast cancer, but they were statistically factored out in calculating the 8% reduction in risk. In other words, the 8% reduction in risk was based on fiber intake only. When you consider all the beneficial effects that accompany a high fiber diet, your actual reduction in risk is likely to be substantially more than 8%.

2) When you consume a high fiber diet, your risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer is decreased by 18%. That is twice the risk reduction seen for postmenopausal breast cancer. This is consistent with several other studies showing the premenopausal breast cancer is more influenced by diet than postmenopausal breast cancer. There are a couple of likely explanations for this.

    • By the time they reach menopause women are more likely to be overweight and some of those fat calls accumulate in breast tissue. Those fat cells continue to produce estrogen after menopause. Even worse, that estrogen is produced right next to the breast cells, where it can do the maximum damage.
    • Mutations accumulate in breast tissue as we age, and some of those mutations increase the risk of breast cancer.

3) When you start consuming a healthy, high fiber diet early in life your risk reduction is much greater (a 13-15% decreased risk of developing postmenopausal breast cancer and a 23-25% decreased risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer). Now, we are talking about numbers that should get your attention!

Plus, these numbers are based on fiber intake only. Once again, when you consider all the other benefits of a high fiber diet, your real risk reduction is likely to be much greater.

In closing I should mention that none of the studies were done with fiber supplements. A fiber supplement may help you be more regular, but there is no evidence that a fiber supplement will reduce your risk of breast cancer.

The Bottom Line

Two recent studies have looked at the effect of fiber intake on the risk of developing breast cancer.

The first study showed that:

  • High fiber diets decreased the overall risk of breast cancer by 8% and the risk of premenopausal breast cancer by 18%.
  • As I describe in the article above, these reductions in risk were based on fiber intake only. If you consider all the side benefits of a high fiber diet, the actual risk reduction is likely to be much greater.

The second study looked at fiber intake during adolescence and early adulthood. It found that when high fiber diets were started early in life:

  • High fiber diets decreased the overall risk of breast cancer by 13-15% and the risk of premenopausal breast cancer by 23-25%.
  • Once again, if you consider all the side benefits of a high fiber diet, the actual risk reduction is likely to be much greater.

The authors of both studies concluded that high fiber diets reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. The risk reduction is greater for premenopausal breast cancer than for postmenopausal breast cancer. Finally, the risk reduction is greatest when high fiber diets are started early in life.

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Which Foods Affect Stroke Risk?

Why Is Diet And Stroke Risk So Confusing?

strokeOne day we are told vegetarian diets reduce our stroke risk. The next day we are told they increase stroke risk. It’s the same with red meat, dairy, and eggs. We keep getting mixed messages. It’s enough to make your head spin. Why is diet and stroke risk so confusing?

Part of the problem is that there are two distinct types of stroke. The technical names for them are ischemic stroke and hemorrhagic stroke.

An ischemic stroke occurs when an artery in the brain becomes blocked, shutting off blood flow and damaging part of the brain. This is usually caused by the gradual buildup of fatty deposits and cholesterol plaques in the arteries. When a blood clot forms and lodges in one of the narrowed arteries leading to the brain, an ischemic stroke occurs.

  • Ischemic strokes account for 87% of all strokes.
  • Ischemic strokes are associated with obesity, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking.

A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a weakened blood vessel bursts and bleeds into the surrounding region of the brain. Because our brains are surrounded by a protective skull, that blood has nowhere to go. Pressure from the buildup of blood damages brain cells in the vicinity of the bleed.

  • Hemorrhagic strokes account for only for only 15% of strokes but are responsible for 40% of stroke deaths.
  • The most common cause of a hemorrhagic stroke is the localized enlargement of a blood vessel due to chronic high blood pressure. This weakens the wall of the blood vessel, making it prone to rupturing.

Part of the confusion about diet and stroke risk is because many earlier studies did not distinguish between the two types of stroke.

  • If the studies just measured the incidence of stroke, the data were dominated by ischemic strokes (87% of strokes are ischemic).
  • However, if the studies focused on stroke deaths, hemorrhagic stroke made a larger contribution to the data set (40% of stroke deaths are hemorrhagic).

Fortunately, recent studies have started to focus on the effect of diet on ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes separately. However, many of those studies have been too small to accurately assess the effects of diet on hemorrhagic stroke.

The latest study (TYN Tong et al, European Heart Journal, ehaa007, published February 24, 2020) is one of the largest studies to look at the effect of diet on both kinds of stroke. It has enough patients in the hemorrhagic group to get an accurate estimate of the effect of diet on hemorrhagic stroke.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study analyzed data on diet and stroke from 418,329 participants in the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition). Although the study has cancer in the title, it actually investigated the effect of nutrition on multiple diseases (Presumably, the study title was chosen because EPIC is a more appealing acronym than EPID (European Prospective Investigation into Diseases and Nutrition)).

The participants were recruited from 9 European countries (Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK). The average age of participants was 50, and they were followed for an average of 12.7 years.

At the beginning of the study participants completed country-specific dietary and lifestyle questionnaires.

The dietary assessment was a food frequency questionnaire that asked participants about their dietary intake for the year prior to enrollment in the study. The food frequency data were used to estimate daily intake of red meat, processed meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dietary fiber (It measured total fiber and fiber from grains, fruits and vegetables individually).

The outcome measured was the incidence of ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes during the 12.7-year follow-up.

Which Foods Affect Stroke Risk?

Heart Healthy DietFor ischemic stroke:

  • Each 200 gram/day increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables decreased ischemic stroke risk by 13% (200 grams roughly corresponds to one large apple or one large orange without the skin).
  • Each 10 gram/day increase in consumption of fiber decreased ischemic stroke risk by 23%. Most of this decreased stroke risk was due to fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
    • Each 4 gram/day increase in fiber from whole grains decreased ischemic stroke risk by 10%.
    • Each 4 gram/day increase in fiber from fruits and vegetables decreased ischemic stroke risk by 12%.
  • Dairy foods decreased ischemic stroke risk with the following breakdown:
    • Each cup of milk decreased ischemic stroke risk by 5%.
    • Each half cup of yogurt decreased ischemic stroke risk by 9%.
    • Each ounce of cheese decreased ischemic stroke risk by 12%.
  • Each 50 grams/day (2 ounces) of red meat increased ischemic stroke risk by 14%.
    • However, red meat was only half as likely to increase risk of ischemic stroke when the diet was also rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

For hemorrhagic stroke:

  • Each 20 gram/day increase in consumption of eggs increased hemorrhagic stroke risk by 25% (20 grams roughly corresponds to about 1/2 of a small egg or 1/3 of a jumbo egg).
  • This study did not measure the effect of salt intake on hemorrhagic stroke risk.

No other foods measured in this study had a significant effect on hemorrhagic stroke risk.

high blood pressureHowever, hemorrhagic stroke is highly associated with high blood pressure. When we look at the influence of foods on high blood pressure, here are the Harvard School of Medicine recommendations for keeping blood pressure low:

  • Eat more fish, nuts and beans in place of high-fat meats.
  • Choose fruits and vegetables instead of sugary, salty snacks and desserts.
  • Select whole grains rather than refined grains.Eat fruit instead of drinking fruit juice.
  • Use unsaturated fats like olive, canola, soybean, peanut, corn or safflower oils instead of butter, coconut oil, or palm-kernel oil.
  • Use herbs, spices, vinegar, and other low-sodium flavorings instead of salt; Choose low-sodium foods whenever possible.

Why Is Diet And Stroke Risk So Confusing?

egg confusionAs I mentioned at the start of this article, part of the reason that the headlines about diet and stroke risk are so confusing is:

  • Many studies did not distinguish between the two types of stroke.
  • Other studies were too small to reliably estimate the effect of food on hemorrhagic stroke risk.

However, there are still some unexplained inconsistencies among recently published studies. It is these inconsistencies I would like to address. For example:

1) In a recent issue of Health Tips From the Professor I reported on a major study (500,000 people followed for 8.9 years) in China. That study came to the opposite conclusion about eggs and risk of hemorrhagic than the EPIC study I discussed above. It found:

  • People consuming one egg per day had a 26% decrease in hemorrhagic stroke risk and a 28% decrease in hemorrhagic stroke deaths compared to people who never or rarely consumed eggs.

In other words, the two studies came to opposite conclusions. In the China study eggs decreased risk of hemorrhagic stroke. In the European study (EPIC) eggs increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke. The reason for this discrepancy is not clear, but one can speculate it might be explained by differences in the underlying diets of the two countries:

  • In China the diet is primarily plant-based. The addition of an egg/day may provide needed protein, fat, and cholesterol (Some cholesterol is essential. We just overdo it in this country).
  • In Europe the diet is already high in protein, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Getting more of them from eggs may not be such a good thing.

In short, if your diet is primarily plant-based, the addition of an egg/day may be a good thing. However, if your diet is already high in meat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, the addition of an egg/day may not be a good thing.

Vegan Foods2) In another recent issue of Health Tips From the Professor I reported on the EPIC-Oxford study that claimed vegetarians had 20% increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke compared to meat eaters.

Interestingly, the EPIC-Oxford study represented a very small portion (~10%) of the overall EPIC study and differed from the rest of the EPIC study in two important ways.

  • It looked at the effect of diets rather than foods on stroke risk.
  • Oxford was the only one of the 22 research centers involved in the EPIC study to invite people following a vegetarian diet to enroll in the study, so it had a much higher proportion of vegetarians than other centers that participated in the study.

The current study did not find any evidence that fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, or whole grains influenced the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. In other words, in this much larger data set there was no evidence that the foods associated with a vegetarian diet increased hemorrhagic stroke risk.

However, most of the participants in larger EPIC study were also eating meats. They were not following a pure vegetarian diet.

As I said previously, “If the data on hemorrhagic stroke risk in the EPIC-Oxford study are true, it suggests it may not be a good idea to completely eliminate meat from our diet. However, you don’t need to add much meat to a vegetarian diet. The fish eaters in this study were consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day. That was enough to eliminate the increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke.”

What Does This Mean For You?

Questioning WomanFor ischemic stroke (blockage of blood flow to the brain), which is the most common form of stroke, the data are clear cut:

  • Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy foods are good for you. (Your mother was right.)
  • Red meat is not so good for you. However, the bad effect of red meat on ischemic stroke risk can be reduced by including plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet.
  • These conclusions are consistent with multiple previous studies, and the mechanisms of these effects are well established.

For hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding from a weakened blood vessel in the brain) the data are not as clear cut.

  • If you are consuming a primarily plant-based diet, eggs appear to reduce your risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • If you are consuming a diet with lots of meat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, adding eggs may increase your risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • A vegetarian diet may increase your risk of hemorrhagic stroke. But you don’t need to add much meat to a vegetarian diet. Consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day appears to be enough to eliminate the increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • The mechanisms of these effects of food on hemorrhagic stroke are unclear, so these conclusions may be modified by subsequent studies.

In terms of an overall take-home lesson on diet and stroke risk, my advice is: “A primarily plant-based diet is a good idea, but you don’t need to become a vegan purist. Nor do you want to follow fad diets that eliminate whole food groups. We have 5 food groups for a reason. Eliminating any of them may not be a good idea.”

The Bottom Line

A recent study examined the effect of various foods on the risk of the two major forms of stroke.

For ischemic stroke (blockage of blood flow to the brain), which is the most common form of stroke, the data are clear cut:

  • Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy foods are good for you. (Your mother was right.)
  • Red meat is not so good for you. However, the bad effect of red meat on ischemic stroke risk can be reduced by including plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet.
  • These conclusions are consistent with multiple previous studies, and the mechanisms of these effects are well established.

For hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding from a weakened blood vessel in the brain) the data are not as clear cut.

  • If you are consuming a primarily plant-based diet, eggs appear to reduce your risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • If you are consuming a diet with lots of meat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, adding eggs may increase your risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • A vegetarian diet may increase your risk of hemorrhagic stroke. But you don’t need to add much meat to a vegetarian diet. Consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day appears to be enough to eliminate the increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
  • The mechanisms of these effects of food on hemorrhagic stroke are unclear, so these conclusions may be modified by subsequent studies.

In terms of an overall take-home lesson on diet and stroke risk, my advice is: “A primarily plant-based diet is a good idea, but you don’t need to become a vegan purist. Nor do you want to follow fad diets that eliminate whole food groups. We have 5 food groups for a reason. Eliminating any of them may not be a good idea.”

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

Health Tips From The Professor