Southern Diet Far Worse Than Other Unhealthy Options

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SouthernMost people know traditional Southern-style cooking is not exactly healthy. However, a new study shows that a diet high in traditional Southern U.S. cuisine is far worse than other diet options widely considered to be unhealthy. Those who consume a lot of the regional cuisine have a far higher risk of cardiovascular disease than people who consume mainly sweets or take-out stalwarts like pizza and Chinese food. Southern food fans have a 56 percent increase in heart problems than those who rarely eat those foods.

As Paula Deen, doyenne of deep-South dining can attest, the high amounts of fat, salt, and sugar in the region’s recipes can lead to health problems (Deen has Type 2 diabetes). One basic of the regional cuisine is frying, as in fried chicken, fried okra, chicken fried steak, fried green tomatoes, fried catfish, fried [fill in the blank] and other dishes often suggested to lead to clogged arteries.

While it might seem that determining Southern food is not healthy is no surprise, the researchers were looking at differences in regional diets and heart disease. They also were comparing the effects of different types of diets. The findings show the effect of regional eating patterns on cardiovascular risk and help explain why southern states in the U.S. have high rates of stroke and obesity.

“Of the five dietary patterns we looked at, the Southern-style diet was the only one that showed an association with heart disease, either positive or negative,” according to the study’s lead author James M. Shikany, professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The research was part of the national observational Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study launched in 2003. The study included more than 30,000 black and white adults age 45 and over who were recruited between 2003 and 2007.

This latest analysis, published in the American Health Association publication Circulation, included 17,418 study participants without a history of heart disease. The group was 59 percent women; 35 percent were black; and 56 percent lived in the what some call the Stroke Belt (North and South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana). They answered questionnaires to determine dietary habits and patterns.

Based on the responses, the researchers found five basic dietary patterns:

  • A ‘convenience’ pattern, where someone eats mainly pasta, Chinese food, Mexican food and pizza;
  • A ‘sweets-based’ pattern that included large amounts of foods with added sugar, like sweetened breakfast fare, candy and desserts;
  • A ‘plant-based’ pattern, largely consisting of vegetables, fruits, beans, yogurt, cereals, and possibly some poultry or fish;
  • ‘Alcohol/salad’ patterns, characterized by a combo of salad fixings and beer, wine, or liquor;
  • and the ‘Southern’ cuisine pattern, with the traditional fried foods and and sugar-sweetened drinks.

The research team followed up on the group for a median period of 5.8 years. During that time, the participants experienced 536 acute cardiovascular events.

“Of the five dietary patterns we looked at, the Southern-style diet was the only one that showed an association with heart disease, either positive or negative,” Shikany noted. Those who ate the Southern diet fare far worse than those who consumed other unhealthy options. They had a higher rate of the heart issues than any other group, including those who favored sugary substances or preferred plenty of pizza. Echoing other studies, those who ate the high fat diet tended to be male, black, not have finished high school, low income, and residents of the Stroke Belt.

Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss

American Heart Association: Circulation: Southern Dietary Pattern is Associated with Hazard of Acute Coronary Heart Disease in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study
Forbes: Study Links ‘Southern Diet’ To Heart Disease. Now What?
MedPage Today: Stroke Rounds: Southern-Style Diet Is Least Healthy

Photo of “Deep frying chicken upper wing” by Takeaway – Creative Commons license.