Southern Diet Frustrates Health Officials

Monday, February 14th 2005, 10:32 am
By: News On 6

DECATUR, Ga. (AP) _ Amid a national obesity epidemic and the South's infamous distinction as the ``Stroke Belt,'' health officials have been trying to get diners to flinch, at least a little, at the region's trademark fried and fatty foods.

But nutritionists have found it's hard to teach an old region new tricks. How can Southerners give up delicious staples fried chicken, fried seafood, fried green tomatoes and cornbread slathered in butter?

Even at the Atlanta headquarters of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leader of the nation's anti-obesity campaign, the cafeteria serves up such artery-clogging regional favorites as biscuits and gravy.

CDC nutritionist Annie Carr said the agency is working to get its house in order by pushing the cafeteria to serve popular foods in healthy ways. The broader goals of the anti-obesity campaign are to educate people to cook with less fat and sugar and to promote the idea of eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

And for the South, that doesn't mean vegetables and greens flavored with bacon and meat drippings.

``I don't think anything is wrong with the kind of vegetables we eat in the South _ it's the way they are prepared,'' said former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, the interim president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, who grew up eating traditional Southern staples on a farm in Alabama. ``We need more fruits and vegetables in our diet.''

When Becky Cleaveland is out with her girlfriends, they all pick at salads except for the petite Atlanta woman. She tackles ``The Hamdog.''

The dish, a specialty of Mulligan's, a suburban bar, is a hot dog wrapped by a beef patty that's deep fried, covered with chili, cheese and onions and served on a hoagie bun. Oh yeah, it's also topped with a fried egg and two fistfuls of fries.

``The owner says I'm the only girl who can eat a whole one without flinching,'' Cleaveland said proudly.

Health officials' concerns with healthy eating in the South date back to 1962, when the CDC noted a large concentration of counties with high stroke death rates in the coastal states of North and South Carolina and Georgia. More than three decades later, the high stroke rates in that region seem to have shifted west to counties along the Mississippi River Delta.

Health officials have spent thousands of dollars on grants to promote healthy eating, including sending nutritionists into community centers and churches. The food experts introduce healthier cooking practices, such as alternatives to frying and methods that reduce the fat in gravy and sauces. But those efforts have found resistance from some cooks who say the healthier recipes alter the taste of their dishes.

``Flavor is a big issue _ when you modify Southern cooking, then you lose a lot of the flavor,'' said Laurita Burley, a clinical nutrition instructor at the Morehouse School of Medicine. ``The reputation of the Southern cook is at risk when you begin to modify it.''

Much of the South's traditional foods date back to the days of slavery. Frying was preferable in the region's hot climate, since it didn't take as long as baking and didn't heat up a house as much. Plus, Burley said, workers didn't have all day to prepare meals; they had to get back into the fields to work. Lard was also plentiful. Today, frying still is popular, especially in poor areas of the South, because it is also inexpensive.

While it's quick, easy and adds flavor, frying loads ordinarily healthy foods with calories and fat.

``One of the common things in the South is that you fry everything,'' said Dr. Nicholas Lang, chief of staff of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System in Little Rock. ``It's a major grease-transport mechanism _ there's no idea how much calories you get when you get that.''

Other research has found that frying, grilling and smoking certain foods can cause chemical reactions within the food that can increase the risk of cancer.

``The best advice is to fry less and to eat their meat medium rather than well-done _ and do like their momma said and add vegetables,'' said Lang, also a professor of surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Back at Mulligan's in Decatur, owner Chandler Goff is quick to point out that the bar also offers healthy alternatives, such as salads and sandwiches that aren't deep-fried.

But he acknowledged that the ``Hamdog'' and the ``Luther Burger,'' a bacon-cheeseburger served on a Krispy Kreme doughnut bun, are what draw attention.

As for Cleaveland, she says she doesn't think about cholesterol. ``I probably should, but I do not. I'm only 25, maybe later.'' For now, she's able to maintain her 5-foot-7, 115-pound physique without regular exercise.

Regardless of age, Lang doesn't recommend the Hamdog, even as a one-time snack.

``If you choke that down, you might as well find a heart surgeon because you are going to need one.''