Southern cooking may be killing African-Americans, study finds

Maggie Fox, NBC News

It’s rich and delicious, that Southern diet: plenty of fried food, cheesy casseroles, and sweet, sweet tea.

But it’s deadly, especially to African-Americans. The fat, sugar and sodium that make Southern food so tempting also sends blood pressure up to killer levels.

A study out Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows the main reason African-Americans die younger than whites is heart disease. It finds heart disease, mostly caused by high blood pressure, accounts for fully one-third of the disparity.

And the main factor raising blood pressure? A Southern-style diet.

George Howard of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and colleagues studied just under 7,000 people who had been taking part in a larger, long-term study of diet and lifestyle. The volunteers got their first medical exams for the study between 2003 and 2007, and were examined again an average of nine years later.

Howard’s team compared blacks to whites in the study. They checked weight, blood pressure, cholesterol; asked questions about drinking alcohol, about income and about exercise habits; and checked for symptoms of stress and depression. They asked what type of foods people ate, also.

As expected, blacks had higher rates of early death than whites, and much of that was due to high blood pressure. That’s been shown often before.

What was surprising, said Howard, was that diet seemed to be a major factor associated with the death rates.

“I would have guessed obesity would have been playing a big role and factors like stress and depression would have been playing a big role,” Howard told NBC News.

“Once I saw that it was a Southern diet, it was a ‘oh yeah that makes sense’ kind of thing.”

To some degree, the Southern diet represents the American diet overall — loaded with white flour, sugar, salt and meat. But this study showed big differences between blacks and whites in terms of eating the least-healthy foods.

“African-Americans eat not just more of this diet, but a lot more of this diet,” Howard said.

And blacks were also less likely to eat healthy foods that lower the risk of heart disease, including vegetables, fruits and whole grains, the study showed.

Obesity plays a role as well, but only for women, the team found. “Black men and white men have the same BMI (body mass index),” Howard said. Black women were more likely to be obese than white women, however, the study found, and for women, obesity was linked with a higher likelihood both of having high blood pressure and of dying young.

There’s been a lot of research into how diet affects the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. The American Heart Association has guidelines on how to lower both and they’re straightforward: eat more vegetables, fruit and whole grains; exercise regularly; eat less sugar; and cut back on the fried food.

“There’s good news in this paper. The things that look like they are big contributors in the racial differences in hypertension are actually things that can be changed,” Howard said.

But, he added, healthy food can be more expensive.

And Howard has a reminder for all Americans. He described a visit he made to a deli in New York City where schmaltz was a major ingredient. “They put a pitcher of chicken fat on the table to pour on your food,” he said. “Bad eating and adding fat is not only a Southern experience.”

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