Potassium-rich foods may be key

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Foods that are rich in potassium can help offset the damage from excess salt, a new study suggests. Image credit: Dina Issam/EyeEm/Getty Images.
  • Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide.
  • Diets high in sodium increase the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
  • With the widespread consumption of processed foods, it is difficult for many people to limit their sodium intake.
  • Now a study has found that in women, a potassium-rich diet can combat the effects of a high-sodium diet and lower blood pressure.
  • In men, however, a potassium-rich diet had no significant effect.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the world’s leading cause of death, ending an estimated 17.9 million lives each year.

In the United States, CVD causes 1 in 4 deaths in men and 1 in 5 deaths in the whole population. A quarter of all deaths in the UK are due to CVD. The main risk factors are high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking, but diet is also a contributing factor.

It is widely believed that a high sodium diet increase the risk of high blood pressure. Processed foods, especially ultra-processed foods, often contain high levels of salt, so many people find it difficult to control their sodium intake.

A study from the Netherlands published in European Heart Journalfound that women may be able to counteract the effects of sodium by eating a potassium-rich diet, potentially reducing CVD risk.

Prof. Tim Spector, co-founder of ZOE, said Medical News Today:

“Well led and large cohort – [the study was started] in the 1990s, which is actually quite a long time ago: Our food environment and sources of dietary sodium have changed quite a bit since then. The authors also acknowledge that drawing a clinically relevant conclusion from a single 24-hour urine sample is a serious limitation.

The large-scale study took almost 25,000 participants from the EPIC-Norfolk trial in the UK. Participants ranged in age from 40 to 79, with an average age of 59 for men and 58 for women.

At the start of the study, all participants completed a lifestyle questionnaire. The researchers then measured their blood pressure and took a urine sample. They assessed dietary intake of sodium and potassium levels by measuring the levels of these two minerals in urine.

The researchers analyzed the effect of potassium intake on blood pressure after adjusting for age, gender and sodium intake.

In women, they found a negative correlation between potassium intake and systolic blood pressure (SBP)—as intake increased, SBP decreased. The effect was greatest in women who had the highest sodium intake.

In women with high sodium intake, each 1 gram increase in daily potassium was associated with 2.4 millimeters of mercury (mm/Hg) lower SBP.

“A reduction in SBP of just over 1 mm/Hg is not clinically relevant in practice. “What this shows is that sodium intake alone is not the only factor to focus on when preventing CVD, and personalized nutritional approaches are key to achieving optimal health outcomes,” noted Prof. Spector.

The researchers found no relationship between potassium intake and blood pressure in men.

The WHO recommends that adults should consume 3,510 milligrams (mg) of potassium and no more than 2,000 mg of sodium per day. Most adults currently have too much sodium and too little potassium in their diet.

To increase potassium intake, one should include foods high in potassium in their diet.

They include:

  • bananas
  • sweet potatoes
  • dried fruits such as raisins, apricots and prunes
  • beans, peas and lentils
  • Seafood
  • avocado.

Prof Spector offered similar advice, saying: “I think the advice we should give is to increase wholegrain plant foods naturally high in potassium, such as avocados, legumes, artichokes, beets and apricots, and reduce ultra-processed foods, which are often very high in sodium, to a minimum.

The researchers followed the participants after an average of 19.5 years, with the last records in March 2016. During that time, 55% were hospitalized or died due to CVD.

The researchers looked for an association between dietary potassium and cardiovascular events, controlling for age, sex, body mass index, sodium intake, use of lipid-lowering medications, smoking, alcohol intake, diabetes, and previous heart attack or stroke.

They found that overall, those with the highest potassium intake had a 13% lower risk of cardiovascular events than those with the lowest.

When analyzed separately, high potassium intake reduced the risk in men by 7% and in women by 11%. Dietary sodium did not influence the relationship between potassium and CVD.

“The results show that potassium helps keep the heart healthy, but women benefit more than men. The relationship between potassium and cardiovascular events was the same regardless of salt intake, suggesting that potassium has other ways of protecting the heart than increasing sodium excretion,” explains study author Prof. Liffert Vogt of the Medical centers of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Although higher potassium intake has the greatest effect in those women on a high-sodium diet, the current advice is to limit sodium intake.

“Reducing sodium intake in itself does not allow for a health-promoting diet, it simply tries to reduce risk by removing one component of the diet, which is too reductionist,” Prof Spector said.

“The UK’s salt reduction program, launched almost 20 years ago, helped reduce the salt content of processed foods, but the prevalence of CVD shows little evidence of change – reducing sodium intake is not the magic bullet in the fight against CVD he pointed out.

So perhaps—especially for women—increasing our intake of potassium-rich foods could be an effective way to try to protect cardiovascular health.

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