Fried chicken, creamy mashed potatoes, corn bread and pecan pie, all washed down with sweet tea or soft drinks. What a feast! But if you regularly enjoy these rich and delicious foods known as the Southern-style diet, a new study finds you’re putting your heart at real risk.

A better choice? Research shows that opting for the plant-based Mediterranean diet packed with fresh veggies, fruits, fish, whole grains and legumes, is a whole lot healthier.

People who ate a Southern-style diet pretty regularly had a 46 percent higher risk of sudden cardiac death than those who ate it less frequently.

That's no big surprise, but the latest study results offer something else — hope. Researchers at the University of Alabama and Weill Cornell Medicine show how changing your diet could change your future in a big way by reducing your risk of a sudden heart attack. As the study’s lead author, James M. Shikany, professor of medicine and associate director for research in the Division of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in a statement: “While the study was observational in nature, [rather than a controlled experiment] the results suggest that diet is a risk factor that we have some control over.”

So why not make a few changes to reduce your risk?

This study was a large one. It involved analyzing the data on more than 21,000 people, 45 years and older, who were enrolled in a continuing national project called Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) between 2003 to 2007. As the name suggests, the project’s purpose was to look at geographical and racial differences in stroke.

Over half of the people included in the study lived in the Southeastern part of the U.S. which, because of its high rate of deaths from stroke, is known as the Stroke Belt and comprises the states North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. About 56 percent of the participants were women, and a third were Black.

The data on any cardiac events happening to those in the study were updated every six months for around 10 years. More than 400 sudden heart attack deaths had occurred among the study’s participants, the team found, and the culprit appeared to be a Southern-style diet. The researchers reported these dietary connections:

  • Overall, participants who ate a Southern-style diet most regularly had a 46 percent higher risk of sudden cardiac death than people who had the least adherence to this dietary pattern.
  • Participants who most closely followed the Mediterranean diet had a 26 percent lower risk of sudden cardiac death than those with the least adherence to a plant-based diet.

Most folk’s diets aren’t so clearly defined. “For example,” Shikany noted, “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 lower degree.”

The real takeaway is that you don’t need to give up the fried foods you love and be boxed into a strict diet (which studies show is likely to fail) to gain the heart benefits a more Mediterranean diet can offer. Here are some general cooking and menu suggestions from the American Heart Association:

  • Put more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, fish, beans, legumes and nuts into your meals.
  • Use more olive and canola cooking oils.
  • Limit saturated fats, sodium and processed meats.
  • Avoid sugary food and drinks. Sugary sodas and other drinks are the number one source of added sugar in the U.S.

For additional tips, check out the American Heart Association’s Blueprint for Healthy Eating.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.