About 90 percent of Americans over the age of 2 eat a high-sodium diet, according to the CDC. This drives up blood pressure and puts more stress on the heart and can lead to cardiovascular disease and even death, a new study has found. Researchers in Europe are now suggesting that a heart-healthy diet must include more potassium, especially for women who eat a high-sodium diet.

This new ground-breaking study that followed up on the data 20 years after the first review, has concluded that eating high-potassium foods like lentils, spinach, bananas, and avocados can help to reverse high blood pressure and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and death, especially in women. The reason? Potassium works as a counter-balance to sodium to maintain the internal health of our cells by allowing the cell membrane to open and close, for the essential job of exchanging energy and oxygen for waste.

New research suggests that women, especially those who have too much sodium in their diet, can benefit by adding potassium-rich foods in order to improve heart health and lower high blood pressure.

Potassium works with sodium to make it easier for your circulation to function on a cellular level, keeping blood pressure from rising, and eventually supporting long-term heart health. The study found that women with higher potassium intake had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death, compared to those who ate fewer potassium foods. The study suggests that by increasing potassium in the diet, it's possible to balance out the high sodium content in the Standard American Diet. Also interesting to note: Women appear to benefit even more than men by adding potassium foods to their daily routine.

Counteract High-Sodium Diet with Potassium Foods

The study found that the easiest way to reduce the heart risks of a high sodium diet is by adding potassium foods. Women appear to benefit the most, according to the study which was published in the European Society of Cardiology’s (ESC) European Heart Journal. 

The research team found an association between higher potassium consumption and lower blood pressure and subsequently, also the risk of heart disease. The researchers examined data from nearly 25,000 participants (11K men and 14K women) of the EPIC-Norfolk study – a database collected between 1993 and 1997.

"It is well known that high salt consumption is associated with elevated blood pressure and a raised risk of heart attacks and strokes," says study author Professor Liffert Vogt of Amsterdam University Medical Centers, the Netherlands.

"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 greatest health gains in women."

Determining the Link Between Potassium and Heart Health

The researchers analyzed the differences between men and women in relation to salt consumption, potassium consumption, and general health. The dietary data were collected over five years by asking the participants, who were all in their late 50s, to fill out questionnaires, provide regular urine samples, and take blood pressure tests. Using these samples, the researchers divided the participants into three groups determined by their potassium and sodium intake whether it was low, medium, or high.

The tests revealed that as potassium consumption went up, especially among women, blood pressure went down. This correlation was even more dramatic among those who had the highest sodium in their diets. Interestingly, men did not see the same benefit of lower blood pressure when they ate more potassium foods.

“The results suggest that potassium helps preserve heart health, but that women benefit more than men,” Vogt said. Among the 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 on top of increasing sodium excretion."

A Heart-Healthy Diet Goes Beyond Limiting Sodium to Adding Potassium

The researchers conducted a follow-up study this year, which was 19 years after the initial data was collected, and found that 55 percent of the participants had either died or been hospitalized due to cardiovascular-related diseases.

Can an avocado a day save your life? If this study has anything to say about it, yes! In the follow-up data, researchers found that participants who had consumed the highest level of potassium fared the best, with a 13 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, as compared to the low-potassium dieters. (The research team analyzed the men and women participants separately, revealing that risk reductions were 7 and 11 percent, respectively.)

“Our findings indicate that a heart-healthy diet goes beyond limiting salt to boosting potassium content,” Vogt said. “Food companies can help by swapping standard sodium-based salt for a potassium salt alternative in processed foods. On top of that, we should all prioritize fresh, unprocessed foods since they are both rich in potassium and low in salt."

What to Eat for Heart Health

This study adds to a body of research about how nutrient-rich plant-based foods can help reduce your risk for heart disease. Last July, another study found that eating red meat and processed meats increases your risk of heart disease by 18 percent.

In yet another study, researchers found that the earlier in life someone shifts to a plant-based diet the better, for long-term heart health. The data showed that introducing a plant-centered diet from 18-30 years old can reduce heart disease risk some 30 years later.

The latest potassium study recommends that we add foods such as avocados and bananas to our daily diet. One avocado provides 15 percent of your daily recommended potassium intake or 708 mg per cup of avocado.

Here Are 10 High-Potassium Foods to Add to Your Daily Diet:

  • Cantaloupe 1,474 milligrams per melon
  • Lentils 731 milligrams per cup
  • Avocado 708 per fruit
  • Spinach 839 milligrams per cup
  • Tomatoes 670 milligrams per ¼ cup
  • Lotus Root 640 milligrams per vegetable
  • Coconut Water 600 milligrams per cup
  • Banana 422 per fruit
  • White Beans 421 milligrams per ½ cup
  • Winter Squash 406 milligrams per cup
  • Mushrooms 57 mg in one medium white mushroom

Check out these 8 vegan heart-healthy recipes to add more potassium to your diet.

For more plant-based happenings, visit The Beet's Health and Nutrition articles.

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