Considering heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., contributing to nearly 700,000 fatalities a year, it's of the utmost importance that we take our cardiovascular health seriously. Thankfully, new research from the European Society of Cardiology found that getting more potassium in our diets might do wonders for staving off this common health condition, particularly for women.
Pictured recipe: Salmon-Stuffed Avocados
What They Found
This study looked at data on the sodium and potassium concentration in urine samples from 11,267 men and 13,696 women who had average ages of 59 and 58, respectively. These samples were used to estimate relative sodium and potassium intake. The researchers also assessed systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading that measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats), and participants filled out lifestyle questionnaires that would account for things such as alcohol intake, smoking, medication and prior heart attack or stroke over four years. The researchers then separated participants into three tertiles: low, medium and high potassium intakes. Additionally, researchers studied median follow-up results of nearly 20 years and found that 55% of participants had been hospitalized or died due to cardiovascular disease events in that period.
The researchers found that, for women, the more potassium in the diet, the lower their blood pressure, no matter what their sodium intake looked like. It's worth noting that these findings were not exactly reciprocated in the men they studied. That said, all study participants (women and men) in the highest tertile of potassium intake had a 13% decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, regardless of their sodium levels.
What It Means
This finding can help us shift our focus to what we should be adding to our diets, rather than solely focusing on eliminating certain foods that we deem as "bad" for heart health. While this isn't a license to dump salt on every meal, it's good to know that we can enjoy all foods in moderation when we are more focused on getting plenty of potassium-rich foods, like avocados, salmon, white beans and potatoes, on our plates.
"It is well known that high salt consumption is associated with elevated blood pressure and a raised risk of heart attacks and strokes," study author Liffert Vogt, M.D., Ph.D., of Amsterdam University Medical Centers in the Netherlands, said in a press release to ScienceDaily. "Health advice has focused on limiting salt intake but this is difficult to achieve when our diets include processed foods. Potassium helps the body excrete more sodium in the urine. In our study, dietary potassium was linked with the greatest health gains in women."
The Bottom Line
Vogt also mentioned in the study that their findings indicate that a heart-healthy diet should be about more than limiting salt; it should include increasing potassium intake as well. He advises prioritizing fresh, whole foods that are both naturally rich in potassium and low in salt.
It's important to note that the structure of the study was based around cisgender people, so a more diverse study population and more research is needed to substantiate the findings to a broader conclusion. But the good news is that some of our favorite foods are potassium-rich, making upping your intake both easy and delicious. Top sources of potassium include salmon, avocados, legumes, dairy, potatoes and bananas.
Beyond protecting your heart against cardiovascular disease, increasing your potassium intake can help your body best metabolize carbs, support healthy skeletal and muscular systems, improve mental clarity and even help prevent osteoporosis. You just may find that your headaches, low energy levels and post-workout muscle cramps go away after upping your intake, too. Check out our 24 favorite potassium-rich recipes to start improving your health ASAP.