How can I eat a healthier diet?
Fruits and vegetables
Adding a portion of fruit and vegetables to your daily diet can reduce your risk of stroke by up to 10%. Every extra portion you eat reduces your risk even further. You should aim to eat at least five portions of a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. If you don’t normally eat a lot of fruit or vegetables, try gradually increasing the number of portions you eat. You could take a piece of fruit to work, add a salad to your lunch or try making a simple homemade vegetable soup. Even small changes and simple swaps will help.
What are the benefits?
Fruit and vegetables contain a range of vitamins, minerals and fibre. These include antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E and beta-carotene, which may help to prevent damage to your arteries. You don’t need to take supplements to get enough antioxidants. Try to eat a range of foods containing the vitamins you need.
What is a portion?
One portion of fruit or vegetables weighs about 80g. For example, a portion may include the following:
- An apple or two plums, a handful of berries, or three heaped tablespoons of fruit salad.
- 30g or one heaped tablespoon of dried fruit.
- A glass of fruit juice or smoothie (150ml) counts as a maximum of one daily portion. This is because it is low in fibre and contains a lot of natural sugars.
- Three heaped tablespoons of raw, cooked or tinned vegetables.
- A dessert bowl of salad.
Tips for eating more fruit and vegetables
You may find it difficult eating five portions of fruit or vegetables a day. But some simple swaps and things you can try may make it easier and more enjoyable.
- Try replacing crisps and chocolate with healthy snacks. For example, a piece of fruit or raw carrot sticks with hummus.
- Choose a colourful variety of fruits and vegetables. This will help you to get a range of vitamins and minerals, including antioxidants. You could try carrots, apricots, berries, broccoli or red peppers.
- Tinned fruit and vegetables count towards your five a day. Choose fruit in natural juice rather than syrup, and vegetables in water with no added salt or sugar.
- Frozen vegetables and fruit are full of the same nutrients and fibre as fresh. They are often cheaper to buy than fresh and you have less food waste. Try adding some frozen berries to porridge, or frozen chopped vegetables to a homemade pasta sauce.
Salt contains sodium which helps to keep your body fluids at the right level. Too much salt increases the amount of fluid that your body stores. This raises your blood pressure. High blood pressure (hypertension) is the single biggest risk factor for stroke. It causes the walls of your arteries to harden and narrow. This increases the risk of blood clots forming.
A clot can travel to the brain and cause a stroke (ischaemic stroke). High blood pressure also puts a strain on the walls of the arteries inside your brain. This increases your risk of a blood vessel bursting and bleeding into the brain. This is called a hemorrhagic stroke. Eating too much salt can increase your risk of a stroke by up to 25%, even if your blood pressure is normal. By reducing the amount of salt that you eat, you can lower your blood pressure and your risk of stroke.
How much salt do I need?
You should eat no more than 6g of salt a day, or about a teaspoon. Remember, there is a large amount of hidden salt found in processed and ready-made foods. A quick way to keep track of your salt intake is by reading the salt content on the food labels. Salt could be listed as either salt or sodium. Sodium is always a smaller number than salt, so multiply it by 2.5 to get the amount of salt.
- A high amount of salt is more than 1.5g per 100g, or 0.6g sodium.
- A low amount of salt is 0.3g per 100g, or 0.1g sodium.
Try making some of the following changes to reduce the amount of salt in your diet.
- When comparing two similar products, go for the one with the lowest salt content - small changes can make a big difference.
- Avoid adding salt to your food during cooking and at the dinner table.
- Try using herbs, spices, garlic or lemon juice to add flavour instead of salt.
- Make your own sauces, pickles or chutney to control how much salt goes in.
- Choose tinned fish in spring water instead of brine.
- Avoid high-salt foods, supermarket readymade meals, and processed meat such as bacon and sausage. Many everyday foods have a high salt content, such as cheese, tinned and packet soup, stock cubes and savoury snacks.
Including fibre in your diet can help to reduce your risk of stroke. It also helps to keep blood sugar levels stable and helps you manage your weight. It can also help with constipation and keeping your immune system strong. Adults should aim to eat about 30g of fibre every day. One portion of fibre is about 7g. That is equivalent to a standard portion of wholemeal pasta (70g) or two slices of wholemeal bread.
If you don’t eat much fibre, adding an extra portion to your daily diet can reduce your risk of stroke by up to 10% over time. You can also find fibre in plant-based foods. The amount of fibre in food is usually written onthe label. Sometimes, people may refer to fibre as insoluble and soluble fibre.
Including whole grains in your diet can help to prevent type 2 diabetes, heart disease and weight gain. Wholegrains are a good source of B-vitamins and folic acid, as well as both types of fibre (soluble and insoluble). To make white flour or white rice, the brown outer skin of the grain is removed. This skin is where most of the fibre, vitamins and minerals are stored. This is why wholegrain foods tend to contain more vitamins and minerals than refined foods like white bread and white pasta. Try some of the following tips to help get more whole grains in your diet.
- Start off by adding whole grains into some of your main meals. Try brown rice, brown pasta and wholewheat couscous.
- Look for wholegrain breakfast cereals.
- Choose wholegrain bread, and try bread made with rye and other grains.
- Oats can help lower cholesterol. Oat bran, rye and barley all help too. Try eating a couple of oatcakes as a snack or adding barley into a stew. If you cannot eat gluten or wheat, try alternative grains such as buckwheat, corn, rice, quinoa and millet.
Some foods and drinks contain a lot of added sugar. You may hear these called ‘free sugars’. Free sugars are added sugars and sugars found naturally in foods such as honey, syrups, unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies and purées. Eating too much sugar in your diet, may mean that you’re eating too many calories. This can cause weight gain, which increases your risk of stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Foods which often contain added sugar include:
- Fizzy drinks and some squashes – a high intake of sugary drinks can increase you risk of stroke by around 10%.
- Ready-made pasta sauces.
- Cereals like muesli, cornflakes and granola.
- Tomato ketchup and baked beans.
- Some foods sold as ‘low fat’ may contain extra sugar. Try to limit your sugar intake by eating no more than 30g of added sugar a day. This is about seven teaspoons of sugar. This may sound a lot, but one can of fizzy drink may contain more than eight teaspoons.
The NHS Eatwell Guide recommends that you eat one portion of protein every day. One portion of protein weighs about 90g, which will roughly cover the palm of your hand. Protein is found in food like meat, fish, eggs, pulses and beans. Dairy products, nuts, and meat alternatives also include protein. When thinking about how to include protein in your diet, consider the following:
- Aim to keep your intake of saturated fat low by choosing lean cuts of meat.
- Aim for two servings of fish per including one of oily fish like makerel, salmon or trout.
Red meat can be a good source of protein and nutrients. However, research shows that eating more than four portions of red meat a week can increase your risk of stroke. If you regularly eat processed meat, it’s a good idea to cut down. Eating processed meat, such as sausages or bacon, may increase your risk of stroke by around 17%.
If you don’t eat meat or fish, beans and pulses are a good alternative. As well as protein, they also contain soluble fibre that can help lower your cholesterol. Beans and pulses also contain vitamins and minerals. Three heaped tablespoons can contribute towards one of your recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Nuts are a source of protein as well as healthy fats. But remember that they are high in calories, so you only need a small portion.
We all need a small amount of fat in our diet. It is a valuable source of energy and it helps the body absorb certain nutrients. It can also provide substances called essential fatty acids that the body cannot make itself. However, too much fat in your diet may mean that you’re eating too many calories. This can cause weight gain, which can increase your risk of stroke. Below we talk about the different types of fats and what they do.
- Unsaturated fats - unsaturated fats are mainly found in fish and in plant-based foods, like nuts and seeds or the oils that come from them. Unsaturated fats tend to be oils, not solid fats. Eating small amounts of unsaturated fats can help to prevent blocked arteries and blood clots, which can cause strokes.
- Saturated fats - saturated fats are usually solid. They can raise cholesterol in your blood, which can lead to blocked arteries and heart disease. Saturated fats are mainly found in meat and dairy products. This includes fatty red meat, processed meats (like sausages and meat pies), butter, cream and cheese. Palm oil, coconut oil and ghee are also high in saturated fat.
Reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet, will help keep your heart healthy. Instead, try eating more foods that contain healthy fats, such as salmon, sardines and avocado.
Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids
Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are types of polyunsaturated fat. These are known as essential fatty acids. They play an important role in the body. They help to keep artery walls healthy, regulate blood clotting, and lower blood pressure. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids tend to be found in oils from fish or plants.
A good source is oily fish, but they are also found in nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flax seeds, and soya products. There is no strong evidence to say for sure if omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids reduce the risk of stroke. However, research has shown that together they work well at managing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol in your body. For more ideas and healthy recipes, watch our cooking videos on our website.