There is an ongoing controversy among doctors and dietitians about exactly who needs to restrict sodium. But this is not because anyone thinks that more salt (sodium chloride) is a good thing for most Americans. Rather, it’s because cutting out – or at least cutting back on – chips and salty snacks, canned soup and fast food meals, and putting a limit on the salt shaker is thought to be too difficult for most people. To which we say: Really? It’s that hard to live without those foods?
Anyway, too much salt isn’t good for anyone, but mainstream nutrition ignores half the problem when it warns us about the perils of salt. That’s because eating more potassium is just as important as restricting sodium. The two minerals are like the two sides of a seesaw, or like yin and yang. They balance each other out. Many of the negative effects of excess sodium can also be traced to insufficient potassium.
While cutting back on sodium chloride, we should also be eating more fruits and vegetables, which are rich sources of potassium bicarbonate. Sodium and potassium complement each other in our bodies, and while chloride is acid-forming, bicarbonate is alkaline in nature. In the long run, a diet with too much acid (from salt and excessive animal protein) pulls calcium out of your bones, contributes to muscle-wasting in old age, and is hard on your kidneys. On the other hand, a diet high in fruits and vegetables is high in fiber, micronutrients and antioxidants, and will almost certainly lower your risk of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Although potassium from fruits and vegetables has its own direct anti-sodium benefits, there is an indirect benefit too: The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the less salty, junky, sugary, empty calorie foods you’ll have.
Although bananas are the best-advertised potassium-rich food, they are really just in the middle of the pack for potassium content. Most fruits and veggies are fabulous sources of potassium. As long as your fruits and vegetables aren’t salted (as canned vegetables and pickles usually are) it doesn’t much matter what form you get them in: fresh is ideal, but dried fruit, fruit and vegetable juice, and frozen fruits and vegetables are all packed with potassium.
Take, for example, the humble but filling potato. When it is fried and salted to make chips or French fries, it is a nutritional vacuum, adding nothing but calories, bad fats, and sodium to our diet. But potatoes contain 50% more potassium than bananas! So bake a potato, scoop out some of the center (unless you’re an athlete, you can probably live with a little less pure starch), pour in a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil, and you’ve got an anti-chip or fry. You can even salt it a little if you like – you’re likely to put on a lot less than the local fast food place or chip manufacturer.
You’ve probably heard a lot of great reasons to eat more vegetables and fruits: fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals. Well, add potassium and increased alkalinity, to that list. You just can’t go wrong with veggies and fruit.