A blissful meal of juicy fried chicken, flaky biscuits, buttery mashed potatoes, and refreshing sweet tea may have the power to temporarily restore your faith in humanity—but most of us know that we probably shouldn't be eating these super-rich foods on a regular basis.
But what if you grew up in the American South, eating the regional cuisine—fried foods, cured meats, sugary drinks, and tons of butter—and continued eating them well into your adult life?
A new study published in the medical journal Circulation sought to answer this question, and the results are exactly what you might expect.
The almost-six-year study examined the diets of 17,400 white and black adults living in the United States and followed up to observe incidence of health problems, controlling for outside contributing factors such as level of education, income, physical activity, smoking, and age. None of the participants had heart disease when they enrolled in the study.
They found that people who frequently ate Southern fare were 56 percent more likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease than those who ate traditionally Southern foods minimally.
"Regardless of your gender, race, or where you live, if you frequently eat a Southern-style diet, you should be aware of your risk of heart disease and try to make some gradual changes to your diet," said Dr. James Shikany, the study's lead researcher and a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in a report for the American Heart Association. He also recommended that Americans make an effort to eat more plant-based foods. (Do fried green tomatoes count?)
Thirty percent of the participants in the study lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana—earning this strip of southeastern states the not-so-cute nicknames of the "Stroke Belt" and the "Stroke Alley." Another 20 percent of subjects lived along the "Stroke Buckle," which is the coastal plain of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The study also found that people living along the Stroke Belt were more likely to smoke, have a higher body mass index, and exercise less.
This comprehensive study wasn't just any other fear-mongering food study either; the participants that profiled were part of a broader study called the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke, a.k.a. REGARDS, which is a larger study of white and black adults age 45 and older.
However, like all studies that try to pinpoint diet and health disparities, it did have its drawbacks. "It's possible that the participants didn't accurately remember what types of foods they ate and how often they ate them," the researchers disclaimed to Live Science.
Per Dr. Shikany's advice, is it possible to make a feast out of traditional vegetable-based Southern sides, like collard greens and hoppin' John? That might just have to hit the spot.