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High blood pressure? Potassium could help.

By: Jae Berman The Washington Post
April 10, 2018 Updated: April 10, 2018 at 4:25 am
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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 of 130/80 instead of 140/90. And 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 the arteries 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 mean traffic is smooth with no stops.

People usually associate a heart-healthy diet with eating less 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 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 also supports increasing potassium as an essential part of the plan.

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 when diets are much higher in sodium than potassium. 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 4,700 mg per day, but less than 2 percent of Americans achieve that, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Yet an estimated 90.7 percent eat more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, which is the Institute of Medicine's tolerable upper limit. Many people don't know that 1 teaspoon of table salt is equivalent to 2,400 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 high in potassium and those high in sodium is that potassium sources are whole foods, often fruits and vegetables, while sodium-rich sources are often in packaged foods.

While 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.

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