The way to a healthy heart may be through your stomach, or at least through the nutrients you eat. Sodium, the mineral abundant in table salt, and potassium perform critical functions in your body, and the balance of these minerals affects the health of your heart. You need more potassium than sodium for good health, but the diets of most Americans tell a different tale.
Sodium and potassium are at the top of your body's priority list. These essential minerals transmit nerve signals and maintain your body's water balance. At rest, your body spends 20 to 40 percent of its energy balancing sodium and potassium in your cells. Eating a high-sodium diet or too little potassium upsets this balance and contributes to high blood pressure.
Sliding your ring on your finger is no easy task after a salty meal. Too much sodium causes water retention and puts extra stress on your heart and blood vessels. When you eat a high-salt diet, the extra sodium enters your bloodstream, attracting more water to your blood vessels. The extra blood volume forces your heart to work harder, raising your blood pressure. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, but the average American consumes 3,400 milligrams. More than 75 percent of the sodium in the American diet comes from processed and restaurant foods, not the salt shaker.
If you need another reason to eat more fruits and vegetables, these healthy foods are natural sources of potassium. Potassium controls blood pressure, prevents kidney stones and may protect the health of your bones as you age. Ancient civilizations had potassium-rich diets full of fruits and vegetables, but modern food processing put an end to that. You need 4,700 milligrams of potassium each day, but the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that most adults get only half of this recommendation. To meet your potassium needs, aim to eat 2 1/2 cups of veggies and 1 1/2 cups of fruit each day.
Check the sodium content of packaged, canned and processed foods before buying, including foods that don't taste salty. Boxed cereals, packaged cookies, breads, cakes, sauces and condiments often contain high levels of sodium. For a potassium boost, fill your shopping cart with fruits and vegetables. If fresh varieties are too expensive, pick up dried, frozen or low-sodium canned options. Most fruits and vegetables contain some potassium, but root veggies, vine fruits and leafy greens are the best sources.
- Oregon State University: Potassium
- Ohio State University: Your Sodium and Potassium Needs
- Mayo Clinic: Sodium: How to Tame Your Salt Habit Now
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Potassium
- CDC: Sodium and Food Sources
- USDA: Sodium and Potassium
- USDA: How Much Fruit is Needed a Day?
- USDA: How Much Vegetables are Needed Daily or Weekly?
- Clemson Cooperative Extension: Potassium
- Harvard School of Public Health: Lower Salt and Sodium: A Key to Good Health
Jennifer Dlugos is a Boston-based writer with more than 10 years of experience in the health-care and wellness industries. She is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter who teaches screenwriting and film production classes throughout New England. Dlugos holds a master's degree in dietetics.