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Food/Nutrition Columnist Author: Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN - Food and Nutrition Columnist - Last Updated: Sep 7, 2017 - 10:06:33 PM

Stop Worrying About Sodium and Start Focusing On Potassium

By Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN - Food and Nutrition Columnist -
Sep 1, 2014 - 12:02:00 AM

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( - Over the last couple of weeks the sodium controversy has raged. One side says Americans eat too much sodium and should cut back. The other side claims current recommendations may be too low and could be increasing the risk for heart disease instead of decreasing it. As the experts debate, little has been said about potassium, the third most abundant mineral in your body. Potassium may be more important to you than sodium because it protects your heart against the damage caused by too much sodium.

While we keep debating if too much sodium causes high blood pressure, we do know that adequate potassium lowers blood pressure. But, it does even more. Potassium may revitalize arteries, big and small, making them more flexible and youthful. As we age, arteries become less elastic, which is a contributing factor in high blood pressure. Keeping vessels supple helps keep blood pressure low.

Potassium works side-by-side with its sister mineral sodium to keep your body fluids in balance which is critical to health. There are two major fluid compartments in the body. Two-thirds is intracellular fluid (inside the cell). Potassium is the major mineral found in this fluid. The other is extracellular fluid (outside the cell) found in the fluid between cells and in the blood. Sodium is the major mineral found here. To maintain fluid balance, a sodium-potassium pump continually equalizes the minerals inside and outside the cells. Too much sodium can lead to hypertension and edema (swelling, especially in the legs and feet). This is more important for African-Americans who may be salt-sensitive and at greater risk for high blood pressure. Too much sodium and too little potassium will alter the sodium-potassium balance.

Americans eat very few fruits and vegetables (rich in potassium) and too many processed foods (high in sodium). Most adults eat between 2,000 and 3,000 milligrams of potassium a day. The Dietary Reference Intakes (set by the National Academy of Sciences) are 4,700 milligrams of potassium each day. If you eat a good deal of processed foods it is easy to fall short.

Food processing often removes potassium and adds sodium. Even when potassium is not removed, adding sodium significantly alters the ratio of potassium to sodium. A good example is fresh corn which has 12 to 14 milligrams of sodium in a ½ cup serving. When the corn is canned in a salt water solution, the sodium content goes up very high, anywhere from 200 to 500 milligrams in a ½ cup serving. Turn a cucumber, with 4 milligrams of sodium, into a dill pickle and the sodium can go over 1,000 milligrams.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are rich sources of potassium and naturally low in sodium.

  • Baked potato - 1,081 milligrams potassium
  • Tomato Sauce - 1 cup = 811 milligrams potassium
  • Mushrooms - 1 cup cooked = 555 milligrams potassium
  • Orange juice - 1 cup = 496 milligrams potassium
  • Cantaloupe - 1 cup cubed = 473 milligrams potassium
  • Banana - 1 medium = 422 milligrams potassium
  • Raisins - ¼ cup = 270 milligrams potassium

The Dash Diet (Dietary Approaches To Stop Hypertension) recommends eating as many as 8 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. In well-controlled research studies the Dash Diet lowered blood pressure as effectively as high blood pressure medications. Because this eating plan is rich in fruits and vegetables it adds antioxidants nutrients, phytochemicals, and fiber to your diet. It has the potential to reduce your risks for disease beyond heart disease.

Eating enough potassium-rich fruits and vegetables each day not only reduces your risk for high blood pressure but it:

  • Is important for the firing of nerves
  • Helps muscles work properly and prevents cramping
  • Helps regulate your heartbeat by allowing the heart to relax - the opposite of calcium which makes the heart contract
  • Protects you against osteoporosis
  • Lowers your risk for kidney stones
  • Lowers your risk for type 2 diabetes
  • Lowers your risk for some cancers

Bottom line: Eat fruits and vegetables every day at every meal.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.

Look for:

The Diabetes Counter, 5th Ed., 2014

The Fat and Cholesterol Counter, 2014

The Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2013

The Calorie Counter, 6th Ed., 2013

The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012

The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011

The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010

The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008

Your Complete Food Counter App:

For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:


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