The southern diet- which mainly consists of fatty fried foods rich in salt – has been linked with a substantially increased risk of stroke. The finding was revealed at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2013.

A southern diet includes foods such as fried chicken, fried potatoes, bacon, ham, fried fish and sugary drinks.

The researchers aimed to find out whether southern cuisine might be linked to stroke risk.

This was the first large-scale study of its kind to assess the association. Previous research has indicated that people from the Southern region of the U.S. are almost 20 percent more likely to have a stroke than those from other parts of the country.

Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., M.P.H., lead researcher of the study, said:

“We’ve got three major factors working together in the Southern-style diet to raise risks of cardiovascular disease: fatty foods are high in cholesterol, sugary drinks are linked to diabetes and salty foods lead to high blood pressure.”

A total of 20,000 adults over the age of 45 from 48 states participated in the study, each of whom underwent a medical assessment to measure their weight, height , and blood pressure.They were each asked questions about what type of foods they ate – as part of the ongoing Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study. Every 6 months thereon, the participants were asked follow up questions about their overall health.

The researchers found that the risk of stroke was directly proportional to the amount of southern food the participants ate – the more southern food they ate, the higher their risk of stroke. People who had southern food at least 6 times a week were at a 41 percent higher risk of stroke compared to the rest of the population.

African Americans tend to eat a lot more Southern food than their Caucasian counterparts and their stroke risk is much higher. The researchers believe that consuming more southern foods is the reason why they have such a high stroke rate. Judd highlighted that this finding should raise a red flag for African-Americans, who eat around five times more southern food than the rest of the population.

People whose diets consisted of lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains – at least five times a week – were 29 percent less likely to have a stroke compared to those who ate very little of these foods – no more than three times a week.

Close to two-thirds of the people in the study who ate a lot of Southern cuisine lived in the South East of the U.S, an area of the country where the obesity epidemic is a very serious problem. However, regardless of where they live, people should be aware of the increased risk of stroke associated with the cuisine.

The results highlight the need for healthcare professionals to continuously ask their patients about their diet and nutrition and educate them about the consequences of eating foods high in saturated fats and sodium.

The study was funded by The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Amgen and General Mills.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist