Originally written for The Washington Post, February 13, 2018
High blood pressure has received a good amount of press in recent months. New guidelines have lowered the definition of hypertension to a blood pressure of130/80 instead of 140/90. In addition, the DASH diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, a well-studied, evidence-based plan, continues to be effective decades after its first release.
High blood pressure relates to the quality of thearteries and veins that transport blood through our body, and to overall cardiovascular health. Having normal blood pressure is critical to quality of life. Think of traffic on a freeway. If a city has bumper-to-bumper traffic, the entire system works inefficiently. Healthy vasculature and normal blood pressure means traffic is smooth with no stops.
People usually associate a heart-healthy diet with eating less sodium, or salt. Then they taste low-sodium foods and quickly give up because of their blandness. But why not flip the perspective and consider eating more potassium, rather than only focusing on avoiding salt? Potassium can be a secret weapon when thinking of heart health, managing blood pressure and improving systems in the body. The DASH diet not only supports decreasing sodium intake, but specifically supports increasing potassium as an essential part of the plan.
Why potassium? Sodium seems to get all the attention, but sodium and potassium work closely together and potassium is just as important. In a process known as the sodium potassium pump, the body moves sodium out of the cell and potassium into the cell. This “pump,” the moving back and forth of these two electrolytes, is an essential part of how our cells function. It plays a critical role in nerve conduction, fluid, acid and base balance, and energy production.
An imbalance starts to occur because many diets are typically much higher in sodium than potassium, which causes an inefficiency in our system. Ideally these two electrolytes work hand in hand, but we overload ourselves with sodium and don’t balance it with potassium.
Adequate intake for potassium is 4700 mg per day, but less than 2 percent of Americans achieve that, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. On the other hand, it’s estimated that 90.7 percent are eating more than 2300 mg of sodium per day, which is the Institute of Medicine’s tolerable upper limit level. Many people don’t know that one teaspoon of table salt is equivalent to 2400 mg of sodium. It’s easy to sprinkle a teaspoon of salt over food without realizing it. This imbalance is what’s affecting the health of so many.
The most obvious difference between foods that are high in potassium and foods that are high in sodium is potassium sources are whole foods, often found in fruits and vegetables, while sodium-rich sources are often in packaged foods.
While focusing on adding potassium to your diet, consider eating more whole foods rather than the packaged version. Try a snack of yogurt topped with sliced banana and dried apricots instead of a bag of salted nuts or crackers. Eat a baked or roasted potato rather than salty french fries or potato chips. Drink a cup of coconut water or carrot juice rather than a soda. Eat a salad with beans, spinach and beets rather than a frozen or prepackaged dinner. Add avocado to a meal instead of salted butter.
Focusing on incorporating high potassium foods in a daily eating plan, while decreasing overall sodium intake can improve this important balance between these two key nutrients. Below is a list of foods that have potassium to get started.
●Winter squash such as acorn squash or butternut squash
●Greens such as spinach and Swiss chard
●Potatoes with the skin such as yams and Idaho potatoes
●Fish such as salmon and sardines
●Dried fruits such as apricots and prunes
● Beverages such as coconut water and carrot juice
●Legumes such as white beans, lima beans and black beans
● Fruits such as banana and grapefruit
Remember to picture a freeway with cars moving and no traffic. Eating more potassium-rich foods and creating more balance in the system allows that to happen.