We all know junk food is bad for us. But just how bad? A new study provides further evidence that a diet high in fried foods and sugary drinks can quite literally kill you. In the research, a “Southern” dietary pattern, in particular, was singled out as being particularly detrimental to your health. So dangerous, in fact, is this diet that those who had the closest adherence to it had nearly twice the risk of sudden cardiac death than those who strayed the farthest away from it, as we initially learned per Medical News Today. Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, it’s safe to say the findings are harrowing.

“The [research] examines the relationship between a southern diet which includes a higher consumption of fried food and sugary drinks with sudden cardiac death, one of the leading causes of mortality in the United States,” explained Rachel McBryan, RD, a member of the Dietitians of Canada, who helps people make wise eating choices when faced with medical issues that require a change of diet, especially people who are having a hard time making changes to eating habits. “In a study on the effects of the Southern diet, it was found that 46 percent of participants had a higher risk for developing cardiac disease than their counterparts.”

McBryan breaks down the research further, explaining that the observational study analyzed the data on 21,069 African Americans and Caucasian adults over the age of 45. “33 percent of the volunteers were Black, 56 percent were women, and 56 percent were located in the Southeast, United States,” she continued, noting that this area is known as the “Stroke Belt” because there have been more instances of deaths related to stroke than any other location since the 1940s. The researchers examined five different dietary patterns for their study:

  1. The convenience pattern, consisting of take-out food including pizza, Chinese food, Mexican food, and pasta.
  2. The plant-based pattern, which included lots of fruit, vegetables, and legumes, as well as yogurt, chicken, and fish.
  3. The sweets pattern, in which people consumed high amounts of candy, chocolate, and sugary cereal.
  4. The Southern pattern, in which people consumed a diet high in fried foods, sweetened drinks, processed and organ meat, and eggs.
  5. The alcohol and salad pattern, comprising people who consumed an abundance of leafy greens, dressings, tomatoes, and alcoholic drinks.

After reviewing the participants’ data, researchers gave each individual a score reflecting how closely their dietary pattern resembled the Mediterranean diet, a way of eating abundantly plant-based foods with a focus on vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, and herbs, as well as fish. The key takeaway, is that a score that reflected an adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of fatal heart attack, whereas a Southern dietary pattern was associated with an increased risk of fatal heart attack, says Dr. Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D., Professor of Exercise Physiology at Arizona State University and a member of the Grain Foods Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board, who has authored or co-authored several books, including Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health and It’s the Calories, Not the Carbs (his research focuses on the effects of exercise and diet on cardiovascular fitness and health). Riffing on that, McBryan shares that a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 26 percent reduction in risk of cardiovascular death.

How Unhealthy is Fried Food?

As this research indicates, it’s pretty darn bad if you want to live a long, healthy life. “Fried foods contain trans-fatty acids from the hydrogenated vegetable oil they are cooked in, which can, in turn, raise an inflammatory response.  People who ate fried foods one to three times a week had a 7 percent increased risk of heart attack and stroke compared to those who consumed it less than once a week,” says McBryan, citing this research.

When you fry food, this can increase the caloric density of the food, contributing to an excess intake of energy, she says. “It can also contribute to oxidative stress.  Many fried foods like fried chicken and french fries contain high sodium, which has been linked to cardiovascular disease,” McBryan continues. To protect your health, you’ll want to steer clear of fried foods. For the plant-based set, we’re talking French fries, vegan onion rings, fried “chicken” or veggies bites, and the like.

How Unhealthy is Sugar?

Surprisingly, in the study at hand, a “sweets” dietary pattern was not associated with an increased risk of fatal heart attack, and the “sweets” dietary pattern included desserts, chocolate, candy, sweetened breakfast goods, and added sugars, says Gaesser. “In fact, among study participants who had a history of coronary heart disease, the ‘sweet’ dietary pattern was associated with a reduced risk of fatal heart attack,” he says. “This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but that is what this study found. Even the ‘convenience’ dietary pattern, consisting of pizza, pasta, Mexican and Chinese food, was not associated with risk of fatal heart attack,” he continues, noting that these confusing findings may be due in large part to the limitations of epidemiological research that relies on participants self-reporting their dietary intake, and the inability to account completely for contributions of other factors that could also influence the risk of a fatal heart attack.

The study also had some other interesting findings in regard to sugar. “The results of the ‘sweets’ dietary pattern suggest that sugar itself might not be problematic for heart health. This goes for sugar-sweetened beverages as well,” says Gaesser. “Although the Southern dietary pattern was associated with increased risk of a fatal heart attack in the entire study cohort, when analyzed separately for participants with or without a history of coronary heart disease, the Southern dietary pattern was no longer significantly associated with risk of a fatal heart attack when controlling for other variables that could also influence the risk of a heart attack.”

Despite this new study’s atypical findings about sugar, experts agree that added sugars in your diet can wreak havoc on your health. McBryan points to a JAMA study which showed that those who consumed greater than 10 percent but less than 25 percent of their total calories from sugar had a 30 percent increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease, whereas those who consumed 25 percent or more of their daily calories from sugar tripled their risk.  “An observational study also showed that overconsumption of sugar-sweet beverages contributed to higher blood sugar,” says McBryan.

So how much sugar is too much? “The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories [daily] coming from [added] sugar for women and 150 calories from sugar for men. The primary sources of added sugar in the American diet come from sweetened beverages (37.1 percent), grain-based desserts (13.1 percent), fruit drinks (8.9 percent), dairy desserts (6.1 percent), and candy (5.8 percent).” The sugar occurring naturally in fruits and vegetables is not accounted for in this recommendation.

Summing up these somewhat contradictory findings from the current study and other research, Gaesser says, “Bottom line: it’s hard to pinpoint any one particular food item as being ‘the’ cause of heart problems. Numerous other lifestyle factors affect heart health.”

Plant-Based Diets and Heart Health

Speaking of which, going plant-based can be a big win for your heart. “There is considerable research to show that a plant-based diet is associated with good heart health,” says Gaesser, referencing this 2019 study. “Plant-based diets are high in antioxidants and phytochemicals that promote vascular health and reduce risk of heart attacks,” he explains, further elaborating that plant-based diets are associated with improvements in major risk factors for vascular disease.

McBryan concurs, as do countless health experts and numerous studies on the value of a plant-based diet in protecting your heart. “Other studies have shown that a plant-based diet can reduce the severity and risk of cardiovascular disease by preventing atherosclerosis,” says McBryan (take this study for example). “Atherosclerosis is the buildup of hardened plaque, or fat, in the arteries which block blood flow to the heart. Increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables can reduce LDL cholesterol and improve antioxidants like polyphenols.”

Another recent study found that a healthy, plant-based diet containing lower levels of animal products, processed foods, and added sugar, was linked with a lower risk of stroke. And if you need more convincing, a study from last year found that along with red and processed meat, a diet heavy in chicken consumption was associated with an elevated risk of heart disease.

If you’re not plant-based, it’s not too late to start adopting a fully plant-based diet or even becoming a “part-time vegan” à la Mark Bittman. “It is not impossible to turn your health around if you are beginning to present signs of developing heart disease. By shifting to a Mediterranean diet and including higher quantities of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins, you can begin to protect your body against heart disease,” says McBryan. Some great vegan protein sources include beans, tempeh, tofu, nuts, and quinoa.

We don’t know about you, but we’d like to steer clear of becoming a statistic. Two bean burgers with avocados and a vegan kale and chard Caesar salad coming right up, friends.

The Top 20 Veggies with the Most Protein

Everyone who contemplates going plant-based has the same question: where do I get my protein? Simple answer: Vegetables! Contrary to the popular belief that you have to eat animal protein to get enough into your diet, one of the best ways to get protein is by eating vegetables. Animals provide protein because they're fed a diet of plants that are high in protein, so if you cut out the middleman -- or middle cow or middle chicken in this case -- you can get the same protein just by going direct-to-the-source.