Hypertension and “low-sodium diet” seem to go together like two peas in an unsalted pod. Salt, has been one of the “eat less of” ingredients that dietary guidelines and health organizations have warned us about forever. We’ve been told of the risks to our blood pressure and heart health in particular.
In the US, we get about 3,500-4000 mg of sodium daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control (women tend to be on the lower end of this range). You may exceed these levels if you eat out a lot, as restaurant chefs are known for their generosity with salt. US Dietary Guidelines recommend a max of 2,300 milligrams, and if you’re at risk for cardiovascular disease, it’s only 1,500 mg. Even at 2,300 mg, it means cutting out a third of the sodium we eat.
The problem? People HATE low-salt diets and they love salty food! Even excluding French fries, these foods also figure into our love of salty savories:
- Grandma’s chicken soup (and most canned or homemade soups)
- Cured meat, fish (smoked salmon!) and cold cuts
- Most condiments, from Worcestershire sauce to anchovy paste
- Most ethnic dishes and restaurant meals
- Almost everything savory that‘s canned or jarred (pasta sauces, tomato sauce, baked beans, and on)
S.O.S.: Save Our Sodium?
This study looked at just how bad the present intake of sodium is for our health and it turns out sodium may be a minor player.
The study estimated sodium intake by assessing sodium in the urine (where 90% of our sodium ends up) and divided the groups into low, medium, and high excretion groups and followed them for about 8 years, looking at risk for cardiovascular events and death.
Interestingly, the groups at the most risk had both the highest and the LOWEST intakes of sodium, but only when they also had a low intake of potassium.
The group with the LOWEST risk for death and cardiovascular events? They had a moderate sodium diet (3.000-5,000 mg/day) but diets that were highest in potassium.
D.A.S.H.-ing Through the Clutter
A diet that’s moderate in sodium but high in potassium. That’s pretty much the DASH diet: “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension”. It works and it’s simple. Just eating more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat and fat-free dairy foods (milk is an astoundingly good source of potassium) does the trick, and it’s what most people’s diets need more of anyway. Here’s why I like the DASH approach:
- It’s not regimented or prescriptive. It’s an eating style that works with all cuisines.
- Plenty of delicious foods are also loaded with potassium. Eat your favorites and eat them daily.
- Bonus: eating more fruits, veggies and low-fat dairy foods will probably push out some of the higher-salt foods people eat now, especially for snacks.
ALL fruits and vegetables are good sources of potassium, but here are some superstars:
- All melons and berries
- All citrus fruits and juices (100% juice, please)
- All potatoes, squash, pumpkin
- All leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, kale, the whole lot)
- Beets (don’t laugh – beets are the new “in” veggie for 2019!)
- MILK! Whole, 2%, 1% and fat-free, also yogurt are the top non-plant sources of potassium – and calcium.
Reality: It Doesn’t Have to Bite
People in the free-living world aren’t going to stop eating their favorite savory foods and they shouldn’t have to. It’s time we accepted that and focused on encouraging everyone to eat more high-potassium foods. This latest study suggests it may be more effective anyway.
While the research continues, make sure your favorite savories keep better company:
- Ham sandwich? Instead of the chips and soda, try an apple or banana and some iced tea.
- Going out to dinner? Start with a salad – dressing on the side so you stay in charge. Have a nice baked potato – sour cream has no sodium!
- Soup’s on? Add some beans and greens for good measure.
- Bacon and eggs? Lox and bagels? Have a fruit and yogurt parfait along with it. Or at least a glass of OJ or a banana.
- Get the herbs and spices into everything: soups, salads, meat, fish, even yogurt! Dried or fresh, herbs and spices are loaded with antioxidants and replace the need for some of the salt.
There’s no requirement for a specific fruit or veggie to be healthy. Just eating more fruits, veggies and dairy foods is a start and a good one. It’s a super-tasty way to get healthier all-around – and just by eating, because these foods also fill nutrient gaps. The benefits go way past getting more potassium.