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Mar 06, 2013

Southern Diet Explains the 'Stroke Belt'

A new study finds that a Southern-style diet filled with fried foods, processed meats and sugary drinks can increase stroke risk.

With popular foods like fried chicken, barbecue and sweet tea, it’s not surprising that the South tends to be less healthy than the rest of the country. In fact, the southeast region of the United States has significantly higher rates of stroke and heart disease than the rest of the country—hence its “Stroke Belt” nickname. And a recent study found the strongest link yet between Southern “comfort” foods and increased risk of stroke.

This study conducted by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at more than 20,000 black and white participants who were 45 years or older. Participants were followed for nearly five years, reporting their dietary habits and undergoing periodic medical evaluations to assess their health. At the end of the study, researchers found that a Southern-style diet, filled with fried foods, processed meats and sugary drinks, increased stroke risk by 41% in the general population and by 63% in African-Americans. On the other hand, diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish helped reduce stroke risk by 29%.

Based on these findings, it’s clear that diet and stroke are closely related. High blood pressure is the most important risk factor for stroke, and diet can have a major impact on blood pressure levels. Since the Southern-style diet is high in both salt and fat, this type of diet can raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels, wreaking havoc on the heart. However, experts stress that we need to pay attention not only to what we are eating, but also what we’re not eating. Most importantly, we need to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy—foods that help reduce risk for stroke and improve overall health.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How are diet and stroke risk related?
  • The relationship between diet and risk for stroke is often overlooked. High blood pressure is the most important risk factor for stroke, and diet plays an important role in maintaining a healthy blood pressure. Having a balanced diet, low in salt and full of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce risk for stroke.

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