Balancing Sodium and Potassium for Healthy Blood Pressure

Uncovering hidden sources of sodium while maintaining flavor

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

In addition to eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, balancing your sodium and potassium intake will help lower your blood pressure—or maintain a healthy level—as Professor Anding explains.

Chef salting tomatoes
Reducing your sodium intake while simultaneously increasing your potassium will keep your blood pressure in check. Photo By KarepaStock / Shutterstock

Sodium, Potassium, and Blood Pressure

Sodium and potassium (the major mineral in fruits and vegetables) are the yin and yang of blood pressure nutrition. Research shows that for every one-unit increase in the ratio of sodium/potassium excretion, individuals experienced a 24% increase in the risk of heart disease. Lowering the sodium intake while increasing the potassium intake is the best defense. 

“The analogy I use is bodies like to be in the middle of the road,” Professor Anding said. “We really like the middle of the road. It gives us a little wiggle room to go left or right a little bit.”

However, when you veer too far to the left or right, your body is forced to live in the ditch. We don’t do very well as humans when we live in the ditch. We’re designed to go down the middle of the road. In the same way, if you have a high sodium intake and a low potassium intake, you’ve got an imbalance.

Reducing Sodium

The challenge is that the average American consumes about 3.6 grams of sodium per day. This amount is more than the federal guidelines of 2.4 grams of sodium per day. The American Heart Association now recommends under 2 grams of sodium per day. 

Additionally, sodium and salt are not really the same thing, but we often use the terms interchangeably. Salt, by definition, is sodium times 2.5. 

A teaspoon of salt is equal to 2.3 grams of sodium. Thus, just a teaspoon of salt a day is going to be close to or exceeding most of the public health recommendations on sodium consumption.

The other challenge is that most Americans consume less than the 4.7 grams of potassium per day that’s recommended. Current estimates are that Americans only consume about 3 grams per day. 

Hidden Sources of Sodium

To improve this imbalance of sodium and potassium, your diet should include less processed food. In general, the more that a food is processed, the higher its sodium content. 

Instant soups and oatmeals, cereal bars, and many condiments are all examples of processed foods. That food may not taste salty, but there’s sodium built in.

“I had an elderly woman who came into my clinic who had high blood pressure, and she was really fearful of making a wrong food mistake,” Professor Anding said.

The woman was limiting her portion sizes, had cut out salt, and was modifying her favorite meatloaf recipe. She’d given up the salt in the meatloaf, but her recipe included Worchester sauce, ketchup, and barbeque sauce—all high-sodium condiments. She then modified her meatloaf, eliminating the hidden sources of sodium and increasing her portion sizes. 

“She was eating a little bit more, which she needed to do, and she ended up having an improvement in her nutritional status,” Professor Anding said.

Keeping Flavor

By increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables you consume, you will be increasing your potassium intake while reducing your sodium intake. You may be wondering, though, how you can make your food taste good without salt.

As we age, our sense of taste evolves, and some people would say it actually diminishes. In essence, to taste the food, we need more sodium.

“Again, the elderly woman who was trying to reduce the sodium content of her meatloaf didn’t like it without the salt, and part of that was because of her age,” Professor Anding said. Although it is believed that having less salt equals less tasty food, you can take steps to improve flavor, such as using different spices and herbs, as well as hot sauce. 

“Yes, there’s sodium in that hot sauce, but practically speaking, you can’t use enough of that for that to be a significant sodium load,” Professor Anding said. Foods can be spicy if you like spicy food. They just can’t be salty.

“One of my favorite things to do is take liquid crab boil, and when I’m boiling potatoes, I put a little crab boil in the potatoes, and it gives it this wonderful seasoned flavor, but is not salty,” Professor Anding said.

Thus, reducing your sodium intake while simultaneously increasing your potassium will keep your blood pressure in check. Thankfully, you don’t have to sacrifice flavor in the process.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.