Share on Pinterest
Getty Images

Bacon and sausage for breakfast, followed by fried chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner: The Southern diet may be tasty, but it’s trouble for your heart.

Researchers are finding that people who eat the Southern diet, which is high in added fats, fried food, eggs, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages, are more likely to experience a heart attack or die sooner than those who follow the heart healthy Mediterranean diet.

This is according to new research published by the American Heart Association. The study showed that people who have a history of heart disease are more likely to have worse heart health if they stay on the Southern diet.

The Mediterranean diet is one that is high in vegetables, fruit, fish, legumes, and whole grains, and low in dairy products and meat.

Despite having the name Southern diet, this unhealthy practice is readily available to Americans in all regions of the country, said Dr. Modele Ogunniyi, associate professor of cardiology and assistant medical director of the Grady Heart Failure Program at Emory University.

“Unfortunately, these foods are readily available and affordable, with easier access to food sources that promote unhealthy eating,” Ogunniyi said.

What does the research say?

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, was the first to focus on people who already had a history of coronary heart disease — those who’ve had bypass surgery or even a heart attack — and what happens when they stay on the Southern diet.

The researchers looked at data from 3,562 African-American and Caucasian adults aged 45 and older living in various parts of the United States. Over the course of more than 7 years, 16.3 percent of participants had recurrent coronary heart disease events and nearly 31 of the participants died.

When looking at a variety of dietary patterns, there was a strong and clear association between heart disease and those who ate the Southern diet.

The participants for this study had a higher body mass index, waist circumference, and systolic blood pressure, and were more likely to have a history of hypertension and diabetes, and be on multiple medications to help control these conditions.

James M. Shikany, PhD, the study’s lead author and nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Preventive Medicine, and his team cite several factors as contributing to the increased risk of heart trouble linked to the southern diet.

Some contributing factors include the high sodium content and nitrite preservatives in processed meats leading to hypertension and promoting atherosclerotic buildup and vascular dysfunction. Also, the high sugar content in beverages not only increases one’s BMI but also their glycemic load. This increases insulin resistance and worsens sugar control, furthering atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup, is the main reason why people have heart attacks or experience narrowing of their coronary arteries, which may require the placement of heart stents or even bypass surgery.

“An unhealthy diet is one of the modifiable risk factors for heart disease,” says Ogunniyi. She adds that these modifiable risk factors are “an attribute that increases a person’s chances of developing heart disease that can be treated, controlled or prevented by lifestyle modification and, often times, medications.”

“There is compelling evidence that shows that the majority of heart disease is either totally or partially preventable by making healthy changes to our lifestyle habits,” explained Ogunniyi.

This study is a follow-up to a study published in 2015 showing that those with the closest adherence to a Southern-style diet had a 56 percent greater risk of developing coronary heart disease in comparison to those who ate it the least.

“We believe it is prudent to add more fruits and vegetables, and switch to more unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, as opposed to butter,” said Shikany in a written statement.

Here’s what you should eat instead

The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association advises eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, poultry, legumes, fish, and nontropical nuts and oils.

They also recommend limiting saturated fats, sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, red meat, and foods high in sodium.

Ogunniyi believes that small changes can help people eventually lead a healthier lifestyle and decrease their risk of heart attack and stroke.

“Start by making a plan to live a healthy lifestyle, which includes a healthy diet,” Ogunniyi said. “Make small changes every day to your diet and you will be amazed how this builds up over time … Limit your intake of saturated fats, high-sodium foods, red meats, foods and beverages with added sugar. Make a healthy lifestyle the norm.”