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This popular diet may increase sudden cardiac death risk by 46 percent

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In a recent study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers investigated the link between heart disease and diet — which foods have a positive vs. negative impact on cardiovascular disease risk.

“The results suggest that diet may be a modifiable risk factor for sudden cardiac death, and, therefore, diet is a risk factor that we have some control over,” said the study’s lead author Dr James M. Shikany, and professor of medicine and associate director for research in the Division of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The research included data from more than 21,000 people ages 45 and older enrolled in an ongoing national research project called REasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS), which is examining geographic and racial differences in stroke.

Volunteers were recruited between 2003 and 2007. Of the participants in this analysis, 56% were women; 33% were Black adults; and 56% lived in the southeastern U.S., which is noteworthy as a region recognized as the Stroke Belt because of its higher stroke death rate. The Stroke Belt states included in this study were North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

According to the authors, it may be the only study to-date to analyze the association between dietary patterns with the risk of sudden cardiac death, which is the abrupt loss of heart function that leads to death within an hour of symptom onset.

Sudden cardiac death is a common cause of death and accounted for 1 in every 7.5 deaths in the United States.

Researchers included participants with and without a history of coronary heart disease at the beginning of the study and assessed diets through a food frequency questionnaire completed at the beginning of the study. Participants were asked how often and in what quantities they had consumed 110 different food items in the previous year.

Researchers calculated a Mediterranean diet score based on specific food groups considered beneficial or detrimental to health. They also derived five dietary patterns.

Along with the Southern-style eating pattern – that includes high in added fats, fried foods, processed meats and sugary drinks, the analysis included a “sweets” dietary pattern, which features foods with added sugars, such as desserts, chocolate, candy and sweetened breakfast foods; a “convenience” eating pattern which relied on easy-to-make foods like mixed dishes, pasta dishes, or items likely to be ordered as take-out such as pizza, Mexican food and Chinese food; a “plant-based” dietary pattern was classified as being high in vegetables, fruits, fruit juices, cereal, bean, fish, poultry and yogurt; and an “alcohol and salad” dietary pattern, which was highly reliant on beer, wine, liquor along with green leafy vegetables, tomatoes and salad dressing.

Shikany noted that the patterns are not mutually exclusive.

“All participants had some level of adherence to each pattern, but usually adhered more to some patterns and less to others,” he explained.

“For example, it would not be unusual for an individual who adheres highly to the Southern pattern to also adhere to the plant-based pattern, but to a much lower degree.”

After an average of nearly 10 years of follow-up every six months to check for cardiovascular disease events, more than 400 sudden cardiac deaths had occurred among the 21,000 study participants.

The results of the study

Overall, participants who ate a Southern-style diet most regularly had a 46% higher risk of sudden cardiac death than people who had the least adherence to this dietary pattern.

Also, participants who most closely followed the traditional Mediterranean diet had a 26% lower risk of sudden cardiac death than those with the least adherence to this eating style.

The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle recommendations emphasize eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, fish, beans, legumes, nuts and non-tropical vegetable cooking oils such as olive and canola oil.

Limiting saturated fats, sodium, added sugar and processed meat are also recommended. Sugary drinks are the number one source of added sugar in the U.S. diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Heart Association supports sugary drink taxes to drive down consumption of these products.

“These findings support the notion that a healthier diet would prevent fatal cardiovascular disease and should encourage all of us to adopt a healthier diet as part of our lifestyles,” said Stephen Juraschek.

Image Credit: Getty

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