What you should know about dietary potassium and sodium levels

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Reducing sodium intake is a key part of preventing or managing hypertension (high blood pressure) in order to reduce risk of heart disease and stroke. Excessive sodium intake can contribute to hypertension in salt-sensitive individuals, but it’s also important to make sure we’re getting enough potassium in our food.

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How potassium affects sodium

Potassium is an important mineral and electrolyte. Too much potassium in the blood can cause serious heart problems, so your body keeps blood potassium levels controlled within a normal range. When we get a lot of potassium in our diets, our kidneys excrete more salt and water, which allows for excretion of any excess potassium. When we don’t get enough potassium, the body reabsorbs more sodium. Because of the kidneys’ role in removing excess potassium from the body, people with chronic kidney disease often have to stick to low-potassium foods.

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Potassium has been designated as a “nutrient of public health concern” because most people don’t get enough of it. The Institute of Medicine recommends that we get 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day, but average intake in the United States is 2,290 milligrams for women and 3,026 for men. To put this in perspective, it’s estimated that our prehistoric ancestors got 15,000 milligrams of potassium per day — all from food, of course.

Sources of potassium

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Many fruits and vegetables are high in potassium, with avocados, bananas, potatoes and vegetable juices being some of the richest sources. Milk, yogurt, nuts, whole-wheat bread, brown rice and many beans and legumes are also high in potassium.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) studies looked at the effects of consuming a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy. While this diet wasn’t designed to be high in potassium, it is. Researchers found that the diet lowered blood pressure regardless of whether participants consumed low, medium or high levels of sodium. In fact, the DASH diet had the most impact in people consuming the highest sodium levels.

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Most Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, so they also don’t get enough potassium. Diets that include highly processed foods are higher in sodium and also tend to be low in potassium. Cooking more of your meals at home using whole and minimally processed foods and including fruits or vegetables at every meal and snack will help you increase your potassium intake while decreasing sodium intake.

(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)

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