Deep-fried foods may be causing trouble in the Deep South. People whose diets are heavy on them and sugary drinks like sweet tea and soda are more likely to suffer a stroke, a new study finds.

It's the first big look at diet and strokes, and researchers say it might help explain why blacks in the Southeast, the nation's "stroke belt," suffer more of them.

Blacks were five times more likely than whites to have the Southern dietary pattern linked with the highest stroke risk. Both blacks and whites living in the South were more likely to eat this way than were those elsewhere in the country. Diet might explain as much as two-thirds of the excess stroke risk seen in blacks versus whites, researchers decided.

"We're talking about fried foods, french fries, hamburgers, processed meats, hot dogs," and bacon, ham, liver, gizzards and sugary drinks, said the study's leader, Suzanne Judd of the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

People who ate about six meals a week featuring these sorts of foods had a 41 percent higher stroke risk than people who ate that way about once a month, researchers found.

In contrast, those whose diets were high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish had a 29 percent lower stroke risk.

"It's a very big difference," Judd said. "The message for people in the middle is there's a graded risk" -- the likelihood of suffering a stroke rises in proportion to each Southern meal in a week.

Results were reported yesterday at an American Stroke Association conference in Honolulu.

Over more than five years of follow-up, nearly 500 strokes occurred. Researchers saw clear patterns with the Southern and plant-based diets; the other three didn't seem to affect stroke risk.

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