What Diet, Geography, and Stroke Health Have In Common

The Stroke Belt region of the United States.

The Stroke Belt region of the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the different regions of the U.S. have different dietary patterns and different regional flavors and foods.  But can the place you live drive the food you eat and seriously impact your health?  A research team funded by the National Institutes of Health and General Mills set out to answer that question with the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Difference in Stroke (REGARDS) study.

There is a portion of the U.S. called the stroke belt or stroke alley. This area, located in the Southeastern U.S., is comprised of the 11 states listed below:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia

For some reason, this region has an abnormally high rate of stroke and some other forms of cardiovascular disease.  The cluster was first recognized in 1962 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  To date, despite investigating several possible links, there is no definitive answer as to the root cause of the higher incidence of strokes in this region.

The REGARDS program is designed to look at look at why there are differences in stroke rates that follow racial and regional lines.  As part of that program, a group of researchers led by Dr. Suzanne Judd from the University of Alabama-Birmingham studied the dietary patterns of people from around the country to see if any patterns emerged that offered insight into the stroke belt phenomenon.  The results of that study were presented earlier this year at the Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism Scientific Sessions.

The research team found that across the 20,000+ participants, there were 5 consistent dietary patterns that emerged.

  1. The Southern Pattern which features a significant amount of fried food, processed meat, and sugar sweetened beverages is most commonly eaten by men, African-Americans, people who make less than $35,000/year, and people without a college degree.
  2. The Traditional Pattern which features foods generally categorized as ethnic like Chinese, Mexican, pasta, pizza, and soup is most common amongst people between the ages of 45 and 54.
  3. The Healthy Pattern which is made up of fruits, vegetables, and grains.
  4. The Sweets Pattern which features excessive sweet snacks and desserts.
  5. The Alcohol Pattern which is comprised of protein, coffee, salad, and alcohol and only occurs in people making more than $75,000/year.

The team didn’t go into the dietary pattern research with any real assumptions or hypothesis.  Instead, they gathered the data and let it tell its own story.  The emergence of such consistent clear patterns shows the importance of understanding how region can impact diet and the role diet plays in overall health.  In future research efforts, the team will dig deeper into how region of birth and where you are raised influences your diet.

Here in Arizona, we can fill our plates with healthy choices from local farmers. Check out any of our local farmer’s markets for locally grown fruits and vegetables. Also, check out our local cattle farmers to find your choice of organically raised beef.




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