Striking a Balance: Less Sodium (Salt), More Potassium

Updated:Feb 27,2014

Couple Discussing Sodium Use In your battle against high blood pressure, sodium (salt) is your enemy.

Avoiding that enemy is your primary weapon, but you also have an ally that many people don’t know about: eating more potassium.

“More and more, we’re realizing how important potassium plays a role in lowering blood pressure,” said Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., a nutritionist in Burlington, Vt., and an American Heart Association volunteer.

The Dangers of Sodium
About 98 percent of Americans eat more than twice as much sodium than is recommended for a healthy diet, consuming an average 3,436 milligrams daily. That’s why the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association is increasing awareness of sodium with the “Salty Six” – common foods that may be loaded with excess sodium that can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Yet, if we cut the average daily sodium intake by more than half — to less than 1,500 milligrams per day, as the American Heart Association recommends — high blood pressure would decrease nearly 26 percent and more than $26 billion in healthcare costs would be saved over just a year.

Most foods in their natural state contain some sodium. But more than 75 percent of sodium that Americans consume comes from processed foods, Johnson said. So, be sure to read Nutrition Facts labels on food items and make healthy choices when purchasing and consuming foods because sodium can increase your blood pressure by holding excess fluid in your body — burdening your heart.

The Power of Potassium
On the other hand, potassium is a potent weapon because:

  • The more potassium we consume, the more sodium is excreted through urine and out of the body.
  • Potassium helps relax blood vessel walls, which helps lower blood pressure.

“Consuming more potassium is not an excuse to not be concerned about the amount of salt in your diet, but it can definitely help blunt the blood pressure-raising effects of sodium,” said Johnson, the Robert L. Bickford Jr. Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition and professor of medicine at the University of Vermont.

 Potassium-rich foods include:
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Greens
  • Spinach
  • Mushrooms
  • Lima beans
  • Peas
  • Bananas
  • Tomatoes, tomato juice and tomato sauce (look for low-sodium versions)
  • Oranges and orange juice
  • Cantaloupe and honeydew melons
  • Grapefruit and grapefruit juice (talk to your healthcare provider if you're taking a cholesterol-lowering drug)
  • Prunes and prune juice
  • Apricots and apricot juice
  • Raisins and dates
  • Fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) milk
  • Fat-free yogurt
  • Halibut
  • Tuna
  • Molasses
“A diet high in potassium is heart-healthy and good for your overall health, for anyone to follow,” Johnson said.

In fact, many of the natural sources of potassium — fruits, fat-free or low-fat dairy foods and fish — are part of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (D.A.S.H.) eating plan.

The recommended daily intake of potassium for an average adult is about 4,700 milligrams. But it’s only part of your total diet. Other factors that may affect blood pressure include amount and type of dietary fat; cholesterol; protein and fiber; and calcium and magnesium.

Potassium also affects the balance of fluids in your body. So talk to your healthcare provider before taking over-the-counter potassium supplements (as we get older, our kidneys become less able to remove potassium from our blood). You should also consult with your doctor before trying salt substitutes, which contain potassium chloride that is harmful if you have certain medical conditions.

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