Following a Southern-style diet is linked to a higher risk of sudden cardiac death, while following a Mediterranean-style diet is linked to a lower risk, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
The so-called Mediterranean diet — modeled after traditional eating patterns in several countries that border the Mediterranean Sea — is one of the most widely researched eating patterns, and it has been linked to health benefits ranging from reduced liver fat to improved cognitive performance in people with diabetes. Other regional eating patterns have also been studied to a lesser degree, particularly potentially beneficial ones like the Nordic diet and related Northern European diets. Less attention has been paid, for understandable reasons, to regional eating patterns that appear to be unhealthy — including the traditional diet of the Southern United States. But as the latest study shows, contrasting potentially unhealthy regional eating patterns with healthier alternatives can offer a stark and useful contrast.
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For the new study, researchers administered a detailed food frequency questionnaire to 21,069 participants ages 45 and older, who were followed for an average of about 10 years. Based on their answers, participants were given a score to show how closely they followed several different dietary patterns, including the Mediterranean diet and the Southern diet. These dietary scores were then compared with health-related outcomes during the follow-up period, including whether participants experienced sudden cardiac death, or a sudden loss of heart function that results in death within an hour.
As noted in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on the study, a Mediterranean diet is characterized by fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains, legumes, and small amounts of meat and dairy. A Southern diet, on the other hand, is characterized by fried foods and added fats, eggs, processed meat and organ meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Southern diet linked to higher risk of sudden cardiac death
The researchers found that following a Mediterranean diet was inversely linked to the risk of sudden cardiac death — in other words, the higher a person’s Mediterranean diet score was, the lower their risk of sudden cardiac death. Closer adherence to a Southern diet, on the other hand, was linked to a higher risk of sudden cardiac death. Participants with the highest level of adherence to a Southern diet were 46% more likely to experience sudden cardiac death than those with the lowest level of adherence. Participants with the highest level of adherence to a Mediterranean diet were 26% less likely to experience sudden cardiac death than those with the lowest level of adherence.
While sudden cardiac death might be a particularly shocking way to die, it’s not the only cause of death that a Southern diet apparently contributes to. A previous study by many of the same researchers as the latest one, published in 2018, found similar patterns to the latest study for both the Mediterranean and Southern diets when it came to death from all causes.
Practically speaking, the researchers noted, the most important dietary changes to reduce the risk of death for people who follow a Southern diet may include an increased intake of fruits and vegetables and a lower intake of fried foods and processed meats.