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Potassium May Reduce Heart Attack and Stroke

Martina showing foods higher in potassium.
Martina showing foods
higher in potassium.

Eating too much salt has been linked to several medical problems including an increased risk for both heart attack and stroke. To deal with those problems, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute put together the DASH diet.

(The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute is part of the National Institutes of Health, which is an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.)

DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The idea is to reduce sodium by recommending a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains. The reduction in salt is what gets all the press, but a lot of the help may come from the increase the DASH diet provides in potassium.

Potassium is good because it's been clinically proven to lower blood pressure and it may counter some of the damage caused by excess sodium. Scientists aren't exactly sure how it works, but they believe it may dilate (or relax) small blood vessels and make large blood vessels more flexible. That allows blood to flow more freely.

Reducing heart attack and stroke is great, but a diet higher in potassium has also been linked with a reduction in type 2 diabetes and kidney stones.

So how do you get more potassium in your diet? Many people will simply reach for a supplement. Potassium chloride is a common dietary supplement and it's frequently found in salt substitutes. Taking 2,300 milligrams a day of potassium chloride supplements has been shown to lower systolic blood pressure an average of 3.3 points. Increasing potassium up to the Institute of Medicine's recommendation of 4,700 milligrams a day could reduce deaths from heart disease by 11 percent and death from stroke by 15 percent.

The problem with supplements is that some medical conditions can hinder your body's ability to get rid of any excess potassium. Diabetes, heart failure and kidney disease can all cause potassium retention and lead to a potentially serious condition called hyperkalemia. Common drugs like ACE inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) and potassium-sparing diuretics like spironolactone can also cause problems. Get a doctors opinion if any of these conditions apply to you.

Supplements are also only dealing with half the equation. For a more significant reduction in blood pressure and your long-term risk, you need to combine increased potassium intake with a decrease in dietary salt. By eating just a few of the DASH suggested foods, you can go a long way toward your daily total without many of the concerns associated with potassium supplements. Here are a few examples.

  • One cup of Brussels sprouts has 504 milligrams.
  • A cup of cantaloupe has 424 milligrams.
  • A cup of fat-free milk contains 407 milligrams.
  • A cup of cooked spinach packs in 839 milligrams.
  • A single baked potato provides a whopping 1081 milligrams of potassium.
  • Add a single cup of banana, with 594 milligrams of potassium after your workout.
All totaled it comes to 3,849 milligrams for the day and if you eat them all you've taken in very little salt.

Probably the most surprising effect of a lower sodium and higher potassium diet is how quickly your body responds and starts repairing itself. Arteries both large and small can be revitalized and age-related damage once thought permanent can begin to be reversed in as little as four weeks.

One of the common complaints that people have after going on the DASH diet is increased gas from all the added fiber. That does tend to diminish over time, just be aware that for the first few weeks you'll be releasing a little more wind than usual.

It's time to see how your diet compares. Track your potassium for a week and see how much you're taking in. You can do that with a food journal or using smartphone apps like myfitnesspal. If it's less than the recommended 4,700 milligrams, make a plan to eat more and talk to your doctor about appropriate supplements.

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