Different parts of the country have food favorites that are closely associated with their geography. The Southwest has Tex-Mex. The urban Northeast has huge deli sandwiches. D.C. has power lunches with lobbyists.
Then there is the Southern-style diet, which researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) contend is the only regional diet that can definitively increase your risk of deadly heart disease.
UAB researchers have previously shown that regularly consuming fried foods, processed meats, foods high in fat, and sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to an increased risk of stroke and death for chronic kidney disease patients.
Their latest effort, published in the medical journal Circulation, finds regularly chowing down on these regional favorites can raise your risk of heart disease — including heart attack and heart disease-related death.
Food as a risk factor
It's well established that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The food you eat, along with the amount, are big risk factors.
The UAB researchers studied data from a massive national study of dietary patterns, in which food consumption was broken down into six categories; convenience, plant-based, sweets, Southern, alcohol, and salad.
The people in the study were grouped into categories, not only by the type of diet they most adhered to, but also by how much or how little they partook. Of all the types of diets, the Southern-style pattern saw the biggest increase in risk for heart disease.
“People who most often ate foods conforming to the Southern-style dietary pattern had a 56% higher risk of heart disease compared to those who ate it less frequently,” said study lead author James M. Shikany.
Shikany says no other dietary pattern was associated with heart disease risk.
Magnitude of risk surprising
“I’m not surprised regular consumption of a Southern-style diet impacts heart disease, but the magnitude of the increased risk for heart disease was surprising,” Shikany said. “However, I was more surprised we didn’t see a protective effect of the plant-based dietary pattern.”
The people in the study who ate more of the Southern diet tended to be middle-aged and younger, and living in the so-called “stroke belt” – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Perhaps not coincidentally, these states tend to place near the top of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) semi-annual list of states with the highest obesity rates.
In the CDC's most recent obesity rankings, the south had the highest prevalence of obesity at 30.2%. Mississippi led the nation with an adult obesity rate of more than 35%.
“For anyone eating a lot of the main components of the Southern dietary pattern, I’d recommend they scale back on their consumption,” Shikany said. “If you’re eating bacon every morning, maybe cut back to only two or three days per week, or if you’re drinking four glasses of sweet tea or several sugar-sweetened soft drinks per day, maybe reduce that to one a day and replace those with non-sweetened beverages.”
If you're hooked on the Southern-style diet, Shikany doesn't suggest going cold turkey. That's harder to stick to, he says. Rather, just make smaller dietary changes and work healthier kinds of food into your meals.