A daily diet of Southern-style cooking — think fried chicken, biscuits and gravy — may be food for the soul but isn't doing anyone's cardiac health any favors, researchers say.

An analysis of the long-term effects a classic Southern diet can have on a person's heart compared with other eating patterns showed an increase in heart health risks, they say.

The regional diet heavy with fried and processed foods high in fat and sugar-sweetened drinks can increase the risks of stroke and heart attack and can mean higher risk of death for patients with chronic kidney disease, the researchers report in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association.

For the study, researchers at the University of Alabama analyzed the diets of more than 17,000 U.S. adults and placed them in different dietary patterns: convenience, sweets, plant-based, Southern, salad and alcohol.

"People who most often ate foods conforming to the Southern-style dietary pattern had a 56 percent higher risk of heart disease compared to those who ate it less frequently," says James M. Shikany, a professor in the Division of Preventive Medicine and the study's lead author.

This was after controlling for other factors believed to influence a person' risk of heart disease, including age, smoking, physical activity, income and level of education, the researchers noted.

No other dietary pattern showed an association with heart disease risk, Shikany says.

Study participants whose diets of the Southern pattern was higher were, for the most part, male, younger than 65 years of age and live in what researchers refer to as the Stroke Belt — Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina.

Anyone with a diet that includes many of the central components of the Southern dietary pattern should consider scaling back, Shikany advises; instead of bacon every day, reduce that to two or three days a week and avoid drinking multiple classes of sweetened tea or sugar-laden sodas every day.

Small dietary changes rather than a complete overhaul of eating habits are easier, he says, and more likely to be adhered to.

"I don't like to recommend people completely eliminate foods because people don't like that, and because of that, they won't do it," Shikany says. "So I advise gradual changes and not completely eliminating things that people enjoy eating."

Making changes doesn't have to mean completely eliminating favorite food items, he says, but even small changes can improve heart health.

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