Most of us don’t typically think about how much fuel the brain needs to function. But even under normal circumstances, the brain accounts for 25 percent of our body’s energy usage. Now think about this: Each action performed by a stroke survivor takes twice the energy it used to, according to Peter G. Levine, codirector of the Drake Center’s Neuromotor Recovery and Rehabilitation Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati Academic Medical Center and author of Stronger After Stroke: Your Roadmap to Recovery. You can begin to see why a healthy diet that fuels your body is so critical to a stroke survivor’s recovery and quality of life.
Besides providing the nutrients to fuel your brain’s recovery, a healthy diet helps stroke survivors manage against their high risk for cardiovascular disease and recurrent strokes. The Mediterranean diet — which includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes, nuts and a moderate amount of alcohol — can help lower your risk of both. Here are a few pointers on how to fuel your recovery with a brain- and heart-healthy diet.
GO! Foods for You
GO! Foods for You is an expert-guided online program designed by the wellness team at the world-famous Cleveland Clinic, based on the principles of the Mediterranean diet. In eight weeks, you’ll learn how to change your life — one small step at a time — by changing what and how you eat. So don’t go on another diet. Learn how to eat right with GO! Foods for You.
Make Your Calories Count
While you need to eat to fuel your brain, that doesn’t mean loading up on calories. To maintain your weight, you must eat only as many calories as you burn; any calories that your body doesn’t immediately use are stored in your fat cells — and everyone, especially a stroke survivor, needs to avoid that. Focus on the quality of the food you’re eating — meaning whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, bulgur and whole wheat; good fats from sources like fish, nuts, avocados and olive oil; and protein from beans, peanut butter and nuts, soy, fish and lean poultry — while keeping the quantity at reasonable levels.
Go for Garden-Variety Meals
Fruits and vegetables are your front line of dietary defense. They’re loaded with more disease and age fighters than a supermarket supplement aisle, and extensive research shows that fruits and vegetables are an important part of a heart-healthy diet, and may even reduce stroke-related brain damage.
- Eat a lot of them. Most of us get only two servings of fruits and vegetables a day, when, in a perfect world, we should be eating at least nine. To get in more, make produce the main attraction of every meal, not a supporting player. Dietitians regularly recommend filling half your plate (or the equivalent) with non-starchy fruits and vegetables. For instance, begin your day with a fruit smoothie, or heat up a bowl of all-vegetable soup for lunch or dinner. You can also sneak a few servings into your diet with a glass of low-sodium vegetable juice each day.
- Eat a variety of them. You can’t rely on one single “superfood” to stay healthy; eating a wide spectrum of fruits and vegetables is the only way to keep your body functioning at its best. Each time you go shopping, buy one new fruit or vegetable that you haven’t tried before.
Get Hooked on Fish
Reeling in seafood like salmon, tuna and anchovies nets you a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats, called EPA and DHA, are associated with lower levels of triglycerides and higher levels of HDL cholesterol. This “good” cholesterol protects the heart and helps remove the “bad” LDL from your bloodstream. What’s more, a study by the American Academy of Neurology suggests that survivors with high HDL may also have an easier time with recovery. Aim to include these healthy fish in your meals at least three times a week.
- Reduce your risks. Since people who have strokes are generally at high risk for heart disease, recurrent strokes and depression, omega-3 fatty acids — which may protect against all three — can be particularly beneficial.
- Boost your brainpower. DHA, which fish get from eating algae, is crucial in brain function and development and learning.
- Safe seafood. Keep worries about mercury at bay with wild salmon from the northern Pacific regions, or eating smaller fish, like sardines and anchovies. The other way to get fish oil is through supplements; if you are on medication, consult your physician beforehand. If you’re given the okay, aim for one to two grams (1,000 to 2,000 mg) of omega-3s a day. An algae-derived DHA supplement is the best omega-3 source to increase HDL. Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic, recommends 600 mg of DHA daily (or two grams of omega-3 fish oil capsules) for people who eat no fish.
Shake the Salt Habit
Linked to 70 percent of all strokes, “high blood pressure is the number one modifiable risk factor for strokes,” says Irene Katzan, MD, MS, director of the Neurological Institute Center for Outcome, Research and Evaluation at the Cleveland Clinic. Hypertension can also play a role in dementia and cognitive decline. If you do only one thing to prevent future stroke, Dr. Katzan stresses, get your blood pressure down. And that means bringing your sodium intake down:
- Stop the process. Processed and fast foods account for 77 percent of our sodium intake. Ditching those drive-through burgers may seem obvious, but keep in mind that frozen dinners, canned soups, deli meats, salty snacks and pickled foods all pack a wallop as well. If cooking is difficult for you, ask family and friends to make healthy dishes that you can freeze or refrigerate.
- Swap salt for spices. Replace the table salt with a sodium-free seasoning blend; add flavor to dishes with spices and herbs as you cook.
Simplifying Healthy Eating
Cooking up a storm may be a stretch for a stroke survivor at the start. In addition to getting help in the kitchen from friends and family, these tips can make it easier to eat healthfully:
- Order groceries online or ask your local markets if they offer delivery services.
- Buy prewashed, precut vegetables.
- Soft foods with strong flavors may be the most appealing to you if you have trouble chewing or have lost some sense of taste. Try out several soup recipes that contain a lot of spices.