Southern food may soothe your soul, but it has the potential to harm your heart. A collaborative group of researchers from various institutions, including the University of Alabama, Boston University, and Harvard University, examined the long-term effects a classic southern diet has on a person’s heart compared to other eating patterns. The findings, published in the journal Circulation, reveal the heart health risks of eating the classics of Southern cooking.

After seeing what the staples of the south can do to the cardiovascular system, Dr. James M. Shikany, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Alabama, and the study’s lead researcher warn lovers of fried chicken, biscuits, grits, and gravy to put their fork down and rethink their diet. He said in a press release, "regardless of your gender, race, or where you live, if you frequently eat a Southern-style diet you should be aware of your risk of heart disease and try to make some gradual changes to your diet."

Shikany and his team of researchers analyzed data collected between 2003 and 2007 from 17,418 participants aged 45 and older who had no known history of heart disease. The group, which was a mix of Caucasian and African-American ethnicities from all different regions in United States, were given physical exams and asked questions about their dietary behaviors over the last year. Every six months the participants were interviewed about their general health and hospitalizations for nearly six years.

Researchers then categorized their regular diets as either convenience (Mexican, Chinese, pasta dishes, and pizza), plant-based (mostly vegetables, fruits, beans, yogurt, poultry and fish), sweets (added sugars, desserts, chocolate, and candy), alcohol and salads (beer, wine, liquor, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and salad dressings), and a “Southern” pattern (added fats, fried food, eggs, egg dishes, organ meats, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages).

Those who frequently ate Southern foods, had a 56 percent higher risk of heart disease compared to those who ate Southern foods less frequently. Not only did the Southern diet increase risk the most, it was the only diet associated with heart disease. The biggest consumers of the Southern diet were African-Americans, males, those without a high school diploma, and (unsurprisingly) residents of Southern states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, killing nearly 800,000 people each year, according to The Heart Foundation. Southern foods are characteristically smothered in gravy, deep fried, battered, and buttered, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood throughout the rest of the blood.

A lot of it has to do with trans fatty acids, which are found prevalently throughout a Southern diet and have been scientifically proven to clog arteries. They’re inexpensive, easy to incorporate into the cooking process through vegetable oils, and give foods a desirable taste and texture, according to the American Heart Association.

"Try cutting down the number of times you eat fried foods or processed meats from every day to three days a week as a start,” Shikany recommends, “and try substituting baked or grilled chicken or vegetable-based foods."

Source: Shikany JM, Safford MM, Newby PK, Durant RW, Brown TM, and Judd SE. Southern Dietary Pattern is Associated with Hazard of Acute Coronary Heart Disease in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study. Circulation. 2015.