When most people think about diet and heart disease, they think about lowering their intake of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Did you know there are foods and nutrients you can eat to improve your heart health? Potassium—a mineral found in bananas, milk, and oranges—actually plays a big role in keeping us healthy.
What are the health benefits of potassium?
More and more nutrition research suggests that increasing dietary potassium (found in low-fat dairy, fruits, and vegetables) can help lower blood pressure. In fact, increasing dietary potassium may be even more important than decreasing sodium intake on blood pressure … good news for those having a hard time cutting back on salt. The term ‘dietary potassium’ means that the nutrient is provided from food in the diet, not supplements. Often people jump to the conclusion that if something is good for us, more of it is even better. In fact, too much potassium—usually from supplements—can be dangerous, so it’s important to get your potassium from a healthy diet.
In fact, potassium is so important in preventing high blood pressure and stroke that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows foods that contain at least 350 milligrams of potassium to state the following health claim on their label:
“Diets containing foods that are good sources of potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.”
How does potassium lower blood pressure?
Potassium is a mineral that helps regulate fluids and helps your muscles, including your heart, contract. If you increase the amount of potassium you take in from food, it increases the amount of potassium in the body.
This potassium helps the blood vessels become larger and therefore blood can get through more easily, lowering blood pressure. You can think of it like traffic—if a 4 lane highway has 2 lanes blocked from construction and then they suddenly open up, traffic can flow more freely.
What else does potassium do?
Potassium plays many other roles in the body including:
- Helping your muscles—including your heart—contract
- Helping move nutrients into and waste out of cells
- Transmitting nerve impulses
- Regulating water and mineral balance
- Maintaining normal blood pressure
Low potassium intakes have been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, cancer, digestive disorders and even infertility. Health professionals often recommend higher intakes of potassium to prevent or treat some of these conditions. Adequate potassium intakes may also reduce the risk of kidney stones and help prevent bone loss as we get older.
How much potassium do we need?
The Institute of Medicine’s guidelines for potassium call for 4,700 milligrams a day in everyone over 14 years of age. This is about double what most people usually eat. In fact, potassium is one of four nutrients—along with calcium, vitamin D and fiber—considered “under consumed” by the Dietary Guidelines Committee.
Children need slightly less—between 3,000 and 4,500 milligrams/day—depending on their age.
Too much potassium—usually from supplements—can be dangerous, so it’s important to get your potassium from a healthy diet.
What are some potassium rich foods?
Across all age groups, the number one food source for potassium is milk. Consuming 3 servings of milk or yogurt a day provides about 1400 milligrams of potassium, or just under one-third the adult recommendation. Other good food sources and their potassium content are listed below.
How do I keep track of potassium in my diet?
It can be difficult and not very practical to count and keep track of the total amount of potassium consumed each day. Instead of counting up milligrams of potassium in every food, however—which gets tedious—it is much easier to follow an overall healthy dietary pattern. The DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) takes the guesswork out of meeting your potassium recommendations and is well-known for helping reduce high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
The good thing is the DASH Diet consists of normal foods that are readily available, with lots of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains—tasty, convenient foods we should be eating anyway!
So, there is a lot we can do to improve our heart health every day. Read more on diet and other lifestyle factors that will help you maintain a healthy heart.