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One Dangerous Side Effect of Eating Too Much Southern Food, New Study Says

This regional cuisine could be doing a number on your health, experts say.
FACT CHECKED BY Faye Brennan

From gumbo to grits, Southern food is a staple in countless U.S. homes. However, eating this type of regional cuisine could have serious consequences for your health, according to a new study published in the June 30, 2021 volume of the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Keep reading to find out the study's key findings about eating too much Southern food—and what you can be adding to your diet instead to improve your health. And for more, check out The 50 Foods That Have Been Linked to Heart Disease.

What the researchers found about eating Southern food

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To conduct their investigation, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Weill Cornell Medicine, and Food Matters, LLC, examined data from 21,000 adults aged 45 or older who participated in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study.

The researchers assessed participants' self-reported food consumption habits and rates of sudden cardiac death (SCD), finding that consumption of a typical Southern diet—one that typically includes added sugars, fried foods, eggs, processed meats, and organ meats—was associated with a significantly higher risk of sudden death from a cardiovascular event. In fact, among those who most closely stuck to a Southern diet, the risk of SCD was 46% higher than those who least frequently consumed foods associated with typical Southern diets.

The same study revealed this truth

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In contrast, adherence to a Mediterranean diet—one that includes ample fruits, vegetables, fish, beans, whole grains, and limited meat and dairy—was associated with a 26% lower rate of SCD than those who least frequently consumed foods associated with a Mediterranean way of eating.

RELATED: What Happens to Your Body On the Mediterranean Diet

How you can strike the right balance in your diet

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However, just because you grew up eating a certain way or have come to favor Southern foods doesn't mean that poor cardiovascular health is a foregone conclusion.

"Improving one's diet—by eating a diet abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish such as the Mediterranean diet and low in fried foods, organ meats and processed meats, characteristics of the Southern-style dietary pattern, may decrease one's risk for sudden cardiac death," said James M. Shikany, Dr.P.H., F.A.H.A., the study's lead author and professor of medicine and associate director for research in the Division of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in a statement.

"To the extent that they can, people should evaluate the number of servings of fruit and vegetables they consume each day and try to increase the number to at least 5-6 servings per day, as recommended by the American Heart Association. Optimal would be 8-9 servings per day," suggested Stephen Juraschek, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee of the Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Council.

Know that there may be factors at play beyond your control

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Juraschek was quick to point out that it's not geography alone that may influence these dietary habits, but socioeconomic concerns and limited access to healthy food in certain areas of the country. "The gap in healthy eating between people with means and those without continues to grow in the U.S., and there is an incredible need to understand the complex societal factors that have led and continue to perpetuate these disparities," Juraschek added.

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Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more