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Experts recommend eating more plant-based foods to reduce the risk of stroke. Stefan Tomic/Getty Images
  • Researchers say foods high in vegetable fat can help lower your stroke risk while foods high in animal fats can increase it.
  • Experts recommend eating more plant-based foods as well as seafood and whole grains.
  • They also recommend reducing the amount of red meat and processed meat in your diet.

Is eating fats ever healthy?

Should you eliminate all fats from your diet?

How much fat is too much?

The answers aren’t as clear-cut as you might think.

Here’s some advice from researchers who released a report on Nov. 8 comparing various types of fat and their health effects.

No, you shouldn’t eliminate all fats. A healthy diet includes some fats. But you should pay attention to the types of fat you eat.

The researchers’ study looked at stroke risk from fat derived from vegetable, dairy, and nondairy animal sources.

The research is scheduled to be presented this weekend at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2021. This forum provides information on worldwide scientific advancements, research, and evidence-based updates for cardiovascular health.

The new study hasn’t been peer-reviewed or published yet.

The researchers reported that fats derived from plants, such as olive oil, canola or sunflower oil, soy oil, nuts, and seeds, can lower your risk of disease. They also found that a diet high in these fats can reduce the risk of stroke.

On the other hand, they reported, fats derived from animal-based foods can increase your risk of stroke.

“Our findings indicate the type of fat and different food sources of fat are more important than the total amount of dietary fat in the prevention of cardiovascular disease including stroke,” said Fenglei Wang, PhD, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in the department of nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, said in a press statement.

“If we compare the finding to other studies examining plant-based versus animal fats, the results are fairly consistent,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian in charge of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told Healthline.

“There are two primary forms of fat: saturated and unsaturated,” explained Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, who works with Balance One Supplements. “Saturated fats come from animal sources, while unsaturated fats come from plants. The difference between them is a small distinction at the molecular level that has big implications. Saturated fats lack a double bond between the individual carbon atoms that connect the fatty acids,” says Best.

“In contrast, unsaturated fatty acids have at least one, sometimes more, carbon atoms providing a connection. Because of this, saturated fats are commonly solid at room temperature leading to their increased risk for causing chronic illnesses like heart disease and stroke,” she said.

Researchers used data from two major studies – the Nurse’s Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study – with a total of 117,136 participants.

All study participants were free of heart disease and cancer at enrollment. The participants completed food frequency questionnaires every four years to calculate the amount, sources, and types of fats they consumed.

The finding included:

  • Participants who consumed the highest amounts of nondairy animal fat were 16 percent more likely to experience a stroke than those who ate the least.
  • Participants who ate the most vegetable fat or the most polyunsaturated fat were 12 percent less likely to experience a stroke.
  • Fat from dairy products, such as cheese, butter, milk, ice cream, and cream was not associated with a higher risk of stroke.
  • Participants who ate more red meat had an 8 percent higher risk of stroke. Those who ate processed red meat (bacon, sausage, bologna, hot dogs, salami) had a 12 percent higher risk of stroke than those who ate less of these foods.

“Cardiovascular disease, including stroke, and obesity are the major diseases associated with a diet high in red meat. This is because of the meat’s high saturated fat content, leading to an increase in cholesterol and artery blockages,” Best says. “Unsaturated fats from plant sources are ideal for heart health. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 fatty acids, which the body cannot make. It is a heart-healthy fat in that it lowers inflammation and cholesterol.”

“Based on our findings, we recommend for the general public to reduce consumption of red and processed meat, minimize fatty parts of unprocessed meat if consumed, and replace lard or tallow (beef fat) with nontropical vegetable oils such as olive oil, corn, or soybean oils in cooking to lower their stroke risk,” Wang said.

“Modifying your diet to include more plant sources can seem daunting,” Best told Healthline. “But it is relatively easy once you begin centering your meals around fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes rather than meat and other animal products.”

Meat does not have to be completely cut out of your diet either,” she added. “The goal is to reduce animal products while increasing vegetables.”

The Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health from the American Heart Association lists some ways people can modify their diet to decrease their risk of stroke:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Choose whole-grain foods.
  • Chose plants, fish, seafood, or low-fat/fat-free dairy products for your protein.
  • Use liquid plant oils.
  • When eating meats, choose lean cuts and unprocessed forms.
  • Choose minimally processed foods instead of ultra-processed foods.

You can start small. One suggestion Kirkpatrick offered is replacing butter with olive oil. You can also look at some of the meat alternatives. Just be sure to look at the ingredients and steer away from those that are highly processed.

“Exercise, stress management, nutrient-dense diet, adequate sleep, and a healthy weight have all been shown to improve heart health,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s not just one thing. It’s a variety of actions taken together as well as understanding your genetic risk.”