The following information is only intended to serve as a guide. The reader should always check with their physician before following these recommendations.
The old saying “You are what you eat” holds true for all of us, especially after an injury or other lifechanging medical event. Our fast-paced lives and increased stress due to the recent pandemic–plus the challenge to “turn things down” on the 24/7 bombardment of information from social media, our smartphones, and other technology– push us to seek the convenience of fast foods and processed foods (like chips, bars, crackers) that we can eat on the go.
Changing what you eat can yield many benefits. Here are a few:
Certain foods, especially those high in sugar and/or trans fats such as fried food, cakes, and cookies, can cause inflammation throughout the body. By reducing or eliminating these inflammatory foods and adding anti-inflammatory foods such as berries or mushrooms, you may notice a decrease in pain or swelling in your joints and an improvement in your body’s ability to fight off infections. Your physician may also notice a decrease in your HbA1c, which is an indicator of whether you have diabetes.
Improve your overall mood
Replacing sugar-added fruit juices, high-sugar desserts, and processed snacks with healthy alternatives such as vegetables, nuts, and fish can alleviate the symptoms of depression.
Improve strength and energy
During stroke recovery, one of the most important macronutrients in your diet is protein. Without protein it is difficult for your muscles to regain the strength that was lost from prolonged bedrest. Try to get protein from multiple sources such as eggs, cottage cheese, low-fat yogurt, and beans, in addition to chicken and fish. If you’re a vegetarian, choose beans, legumes, tofu, and other plant-based proteins. Combining these healthy food choices with a consistent 3x/week exercise and strengthening program will produce improved function in everyday life activities.
In addition to making the right food choices, one of the most important changes we can make is ensuring proper hydration. The body contains on average about 60% water. If you break it down by organs, the brain is made up of about 80 – 85% water. The heart and lungs are about 75 – 80% water. Studies show that with dehydration your brain shrinks which is linked with decreased ability to think or mental slowness (such as performing math calculations), decreased short term memory, decreased ability for hand eye coordination activities, and an increase in feeling fatigued which all lead to decreased quality of life. 1 Dehydration can limit your heart from effectively pumping blood through your cardiovascular system which leads to decreased circulation, decreased blood supply to your brain, decreased oxygen/nutrients to your heart muscle tissue, increased likelihood of blood clots, and increased fatigue. 2 Dehydrated people also perform poorly on muscle function tests which lead to decreased balance and increased risk for falls.
How to begin making healthy-lifestyle choices
Changing nutritional habits can be overwhelming because there are so many food choices. Even before reading this article, you most likely already knew what you needed to change. Start by picking one thing, for example, “I’m going to decrease my sugar consumption.” Notice that I didn’t say “I’m going to cut out all sugar from my diet.” That might be unrealistic. So, let’s say you typically have dessert after dinner. One suggestion is to make a goal for one month of eating only half the dessert you normally do after dinner. Every day you achieve that goal, mark it down somewhere (e.g., your calendar, smartphone, or post-it notes on the frig) to hold yourself accountable and validate your effort. Make it fun by turning it into a challenge with family or friends with a (non-food) “prize” at the end of the 30 days. Then, let the winner create the next 30-day challenge. Another goal might be “I’m going to eat an extra cup of fresh vegetables with lunch every day.” Once your chose goal becomes a habit, keep it up and choose a second goal. Over time, you will improve your nutrition without becoming overwhelmed by tackling it all at once.
Improving your nutrition is a lifestyle change. Don’t think of it as a time-bounded diet because “going on a diet” implies you can eventually go off the diet, returning to old habits, which will negate the benefits you achieved by making healthy choices today.
Avoiding a first stroke, or preventing a second stroke, is—in part—in your hands. Developing and maintain a healthy food plan, plus implementing a doctor-approved exercise and strength-training program, will put you on the right road to a healthy lifestyle. Beyond that, if you smoke, quit; lose weight if needed; maintain your blood pressure, your glucose level, and your cholesterol in healthy ranges. You will feel better; you will look better; and you will reduce your risks of stroke.
Take a short quiz to guide you on how you are doing now with your current food choices what changes you might need to make.
Check with a registered dietician nutritionist to help you make the right choices based on your individual needs and medical history.
Contributed by: Michelle Chung
- Wilson MMG and Morley JE. Impaired cognitive function and mental performance in mild dehydration. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003 57, Suppl 2, S24 – S29.
- Thomas DR, Cote TR, et. al. Understanding Clinical Dehydration and Its Treatment. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2008; 9: 292-301
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