UPDATE: Most of us have heard of or read warnings about consuming too much salt. And for good reason. Numerous studies have warned us about the relationship between dietary sodium intake and high blood pressure, which is related to certain kinds of heart disease and stroke.
In societies where sodium intake is high, hypertension is common, and the problem increases with increasing levels of sodium. On the other hand, societies that consume low levels of sodium have little hypertension and a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease.The problem with blaming sodium is that not all individuals respond to high levels of sodium with a rise in blood pressure. Also, not all show a decrease in blood pressure in response to a reduction in sodium.
A recent article in "Contemporary Nutrition" (General Mills, Vol. 13, No. 8, 1988) says that most societies that are low in sodium are also high in potassium, and many of these people are more active than the average American as well.
An article in the January 1989 issue of the Tufts University "Diet & Nutrition Letter" suggests that Americans should "think potassium." According to this article, there are good reasons to eat foods that contain plenty of potassium, since potassium is sodium's "partner" in controlling blood pressure and as a regulator of the heart's rhythm.
There is evidence suggesting that a diet rich in potassium will decrease the likelihood of falling victim to high blood pressure. Scientists theorize that it has something to do with maintaining a proper sodium-potassium balance. Besides that, including foods high in potassium usually improves the quality of the diet. For instance, beef, poultry and fish not only contribute potassium but plenty of vitamins and minerals, such as iron. Be sure to choose lean cuts to decrease the negative effects of fats.
Fruits and vegetables provide a great deal of potassium as well. For example, a baked potato with skin contains only 5 milligrams of sodium and only a 10th of a gram of fat, but contains several hundred milligrams of potassium, plus some vitamin C. Bananas, cantaloupe, broccoli, oranges, tomatoes, dried beans, and peas area also high in potassium.
The value of many of these foods changes when processed, however. When potatoes are made into chips, the sodium content goes up to 50 times and one ounce of these tasty critters contains 10 grams of fat (about 90 calories). You will also get more sodium and fat from frozen vegetables and sauce "in a pouch" than from unadorned vegetables. In other words, the less tampering, the better for many foods.
Should you take a potassium supplement? People who take diuretics to control high blood pressure often lose significant amounts of potassium and need a supplement. Other than with doctor's orders, the best way to increase potassium intake is to "think potassium" and eat those foods that give you potassium naturally.