It better be leaning heavily towards potassium because otherwise, you have a greater risk of dying, according to a new study. It found that people who eat high sodium, low potassium diets have a higher risk of dying from a heart attack or from any cause. The study, which appears in the July 11, 2011 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, adds to the already-substantial evidence that high salt diets have negative effects on health. And it highlights a key dietary change people should make: Eat more fresh vegetables and fruits, which are naturally high in potassium and low in sodium—and eat less bread, cheese, and processed meat, since these and other processed foods are high in sodium and low in potassium.
When it comes to the heart, sodium and potassium have opposite effects. High sodium increases blood pressure, ultimately leading to heart disease, while it also has a directly hardening, stiffening effect on blood vessels. High potassium, on the other hand, helps relax blood vessels which lowers blood pressure. Our bodies need far more potassium each day than sodium, and the latest guidelines say that most Americans should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day, the amount in about two-thirds of a teaspoon of table salt. But the typical US diet— being low in produce and high on processed foods—is just the opposite: Americans average about 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day while only getting about 2,900 milligrams of potassium each day. They’re consuming more sodium than potassium, which is deadly!
The newest study, which is based on diet reports from participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, followed just over 12,000 men and women for an average of 15 years. Sodium intakes averaged about 4,300 milligrams per day in men and 2,900 milligrams a day in women. Potassium intakes averaged a good bit lower (3,400 milligrams and 2,400 milligrams), and substantially lower than the 4,700 milligrams per day that the US government recommends. (7)
People with the highest sodium intakes had a 20 percent higher risk of death from any cause than people with the lowest sodium intakes. People with the highest potassium intakes had a 20 percent lower risk of dying than people with the lowest intakes. But what may be even more important for health is the relationship of sodium to potassium in the diet: People with the highest ratio of sodium to potassium in their diets had double the risk of dying of a heart attack than people with the lowest ratio, and they had a 50 percent higher risk of death from any cause.
The US government and European governments have started working with the food industry to lower sodium levels. Finland and the UK have done the most, and in the US, the Institute of Medicine has recommended that the FDA regulate the amount of salt in commercially prepared food. Some manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to cut back on sodium by 20 percent over the next five years, but Campbell Soup announced in early July 2011 that it was raising sodium levels in some of its soups, blaming its previous salt reduction for sagging sales.
Ultimately, regulatory efforts will be futile because consumers can always add salt to their food. If the soup tastes bland to them, they’ll just add salt at home.
But, what consumers need to realize is that you adjust to a lower salt intake over time, that initially the food tastes bland to you because you’re used to that jolt of salt, but eventually you learn to appreciate the more subtle flavor of the foods without salt or with less salt. Your taste buds can return to a more pristine state of savoring food without salt. It’s worth the effort to do this because high-salt is deadly.