Most people I talk to about high blood pressure say, "I know, I know. I need to cut back on salt." That's correct. Few, however, are aware that potassium also plays a key role in the fight against high blood pressure.
Who cares? We should, says the American Heart Association. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke — sometimes called a heart attack in the brain — that can lead to serious disabilities or death.
We could prevent 80% of strokes, says the association, primarily by keeping our blood pressure in check. A normal blood pressure (defined as less than 120/80) can also help ward off heart attacks, aneurysms and dementia as well as certain kidney and eye diseases.
Potassium works to lower blood pressure in several ways, according to the National Institutes of Health. It helps keep our blood vessels flexible and open so the pressure of blood pumping through is reduced. Potassium also helps our bodies eliminate excess sodium. One of the best dietary strategies to lower blood pressure, therefore, is to eat a diet that is high in potassium and low in sodium.
What does that diet look like? A good example is the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). This eating pattern — rich in potassium from fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods — has been shown to significantly lower blood pressure.
Fortunately, bananas are not the only food that contain potassium. It is found in a variety of plant- as well as animal-based foods. Several types of fruit, vegetables and legumes (beans and peas) as well as meat, milk, poultry, fish and nuts are good sources of this nutrient.
One-half cup of dried apricots, for example, contains more than double the amount of potassium in a medium banana. And whole grain foods such as brown rice and whole wheat flour contain more potassium than their refined counterparts, white rice and white flour.
It is interesting, too, that a potassium-rich diet does even more than just reduce our risk for having a stroke. Potassium also plays a key role in strengthening bones and decreasing our risk for certain types of kidney stones. I'd say that's worthy of attention.
A word of caution: High intakes of potassium-rich foods pose no problem for healthy people because our kidneys get rid of any excess, says the NIH. People with kidney disease, however, may need to limit their intake of high-potassium foods. And if you take certain medications such as ACE inhibitors and potassium-sparing diuretics, talk to your doctor. They may want you to see a registered dietitian about your potassium intake.
Barbara Intermill is a registered dietitian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.