From fried chicken to sweet tea, the traditional “southern” diet is full of foods that we all know probably aren’t good for us, regardless of how good they might taste. While they’re likely to expand your waistline and reduce your overall health, research suggests southern foods also could increase your risk of stroke. A 2013 study from the University of Alabama in Birmingham found that people who ate foods found in the traditional southern diet roughly six meals a week had a 41 percent increased risk for stroke – a number that jumps to 63 percent for African-Americans. By contrast, people whose diets regularly consisted of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish had a 29 percent lower stroke risk. The study looked at more than 20,000 people ages 45 or older every six months over the course of a five-year period. Participants had a physical exam and regular blood tests and their results were measured by the number of strokes they experienced over the course of the study.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says the primary nutritional concerns in the southern diet are simple and obvious: fat, sodium and sugar. “A person’s risk of stroke can be increased by high cholesterol and high blood lipid levels,” she said. “Both of these come from a high fat intake, particularly a high intake of saturated and trans fats, which are common in the traditional southern diet of fried foods,” she explained. “Processed foods and meats can be very high in sodium, which can lead to high blood pressure, a major contributor to increased stroke risk. Of course, sugar increases blood sugar levels. That can make controlling diabetes difficult and can contribute to obesity, both of which are stroke risk factors,” she added.
Tillman says a lot of the problems with the southern diet are so-called "hyper-palatable" food combinations. “In 2019, a study from the journal ‘Obesity’ found that people tend to eat larger portions when foods are loaded with a combination of fat, carbohydrates and salt,” Tillman said. “For example, fried potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and biscuits and gravy. “Also, it’s worth noting that it’s not just foods, but beverages, too. Traditional southern beverages, such as sweet tea, contain lots of added sugar, and some people drink them multiple times per day," she added.
By limiting the typical southern foods in our diets, Tillman says the risk of stroke can be significantly lowered. “It’s important to watch what we eat when it comes to the southern diet, as there are risks involved when we eat too many fried, sugary or salty foods,” she said. “Instead, try eating more fruits and vegetables, or take the same piece of chicken and grill it instead of frying it,” she said. “In addition to a better diet and regular exercise, we can and should work to maintain a healthy weight, avoid smoking, and keep a close watch on our blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” Tillman explained. “All of these will help reduce our risk for stroke,” she added.