Eating too much salt and too little potassium is not only bad for your health, it may significantly increase the risk of premature death, according to a study by the U.S. Centers for disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For the study, researchers tracked the eating habits of more than 12,000 people for 15 years. The goal was to better understand the long-term health effects of sodium and potassium intake.
Study Reveals the Importance of
A Balanced Sodium-Potassium Ratio
At the outset of the survey, none of the participants followed a low-sodium diet and no one had a history of heart problems or stroke. By the end, 2,270 had died, including 1,268 from cardiovascular disease. Using death certificates, the research team looked at each cause of death.
Those who died from heart attack typically ate a diet high in sodium and low in potassium, according to Dr. Elena Kuklina, one of the lead scientists involved the study.
“[These people] had a 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause, and about twice the risk of death – or a 200 percent increase – from heart attack,” she said.
These findings stand in sharp contrast to another recently published report that saw no evidence that reducing salt consumption lowers the risk of heart disease.
Dr. Kuklina agrees that eating less salt alone may not make all the difference, but that the amount of potassium in one’s diet also plays a role. Potassium counteracts the effects of salt, she said. “If sodium increases your blood pressure, potassium decreases it. If sodium retains water, potassium helps you get rid of it. We need to strive to do both – decrease sodium intake and increase potassium intake.” That is why the CDC researchers focused on the sodium-potassium ratio, hoping to better understand the effects of both nutrients on one another and, subsequently, to shed more light on the causes of cardiovascular disease.
Not everyone agrees with their findings, though. Morton Satin, vice president of science and research for the Salt Institute, a trade association for salt companies, said the CDC report is “highly flawed and reveals more of this dogmatic anti-salt agenda.” In his view, “the public should ignore this study and focus on eating more salads, vegetables and fruits. If people do that, the sodium will take care of itself.”
Not so, said Dr. Robert Briss, director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the CDC. He estimates that 90 percent of Americans consume more sodium than they should, which is detrimental for their blood pressure. “Most of that sodium is not related to the salt shaker but is in foods and especially processed and restaurant foods. Consumers, even motivated ones, don’t have as much choice as they could,” he said.
The Dietary Guidelines by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommend a maximum sodium intake of 2,300 milligrams per day and 1,500 milligrams or less for people with known heart disease or hypertension. The participants in the CDC study with the highest sodium intake had about 5,000 milligrams per day; those at the low end had 2,176 milligrams. The USDA recommendation for potassium is 4,700 milligrams a day. Those in the study who consumed the most had 4,069 milligrams; those who ate the least had about 1,800 milligrams.
Most health experts agree that Americans should cut back on salt, regardless of the amounts of potassium they get. Potassium may neutralize some of the heart-damaging effects of salt, but consistently high sodium intake still increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, said Dr. Kuklina. No one should go over the recommended limit of 2,300 milligrams, which roughly equals a teaspoon of salt. But only one in 10 Americans meets that goal.
Exactly how salt and potassium interact with one another is not yet fully understood. People should not think they are protected against the effects of high levels of sodium in their food simply by adding more fruits and vegetables or by taking supplements. Healthy eating requires both: Increasing the good as well as eliminating the bad.
Some fruits rich in potassium
Apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, mangos, oranges, papayas, pears, strawberries
Some vegetables rich in potassium
Bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflowers, chards, crimini mushrooms, cucumbers, eggplants, garlic, lettuce, lima beans, onions, parsley, potatoes, spinach, squash, tomatoes