My impetus for this article began with a nocturnal muscle spasm/leg cramp that woke me up in the middle of the night. As I searched for information on this topic, I found lots of information about the correlation between sodium and potassium. Not a fan of the taste of salt and not too savvy about potassium and its role in our bodies, this post took a different turn. Today I want to talk about sodium and potassium and the importance of proper consumption levels of them both.
More than likely, even the unhealthy-minded people among us have some idea that there is too much salt in the typical American diet. The higher the salt or sodium chloride consumption, the higher the possibility of high blood pressure and hypertension. The recommended daily intake of salt is less that 2,300 mg or 2.3 grams and according to a study which is less that 1/2 of a teaspoon of salt. Here in the USA, the median salt intake for men ranges from 7.8 grams (7,800 mg) to 11.8 grams (11,800 mg) or 3 to more than 4 times what is recommended, while the median intake of salt for women is 5.8 grams (5,800 mg) to 7.8 grams (7,800 mg) per day!
In Canada, the figures are a little lower and range in grams for men of 7.1 to 9.7 grams per day and for women 5.1 to 6.4 grams per day. Bear in mind if you are in a high-risk category because of ethnicity or if you are older than 50, you should be consuming less that 2.3 grams or 2,300 mg a day. A teaspoon of salt weighs in at 5,700 mg, so we shouldn’t even be consuming 1/2 of a teaspoon of salt per day. People in general are consuming way too much salt!
The Typical Western Diet – We are the “Salt of the Earth”
And that’s not a good thing! Our diet is high in salt and low in potassium. One study recommends the opposite, that people should consume twice as much potassium as sodium to halve the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Sodium is rampant in processed foods! Read the labels and it will stun you. I am repeating myself from another post, but food manufacturers have admitted to processing their foods with a sodium wash to make them “taste better”. I say ble-e-ech! I can taste it the salt and won’t eat anything in which I can taste the salt. While looking at the labels, I wondered why simple foods contained so much sodium, now I know, food manufacturers are purposely adding the salt to foods. When salt is added to processed foods, potassium is not added, which further throws off the balance.
Here’s a real-life example for you. As I have recently gone vegan, I am experimenting with eating some plant sources of protein such as black beans. Who doesn’t like black beans? They put you in a fiesta kind of mood when you add them to a meal. I always buy the “low sodium” version. The Trader Joe’s low sodium brand had 370 mg for 1/2 cup, which isn’t a lot of beans given the fact that a 15.5 oz can of beans has 3.5 servings of 1/2 cup each.
Their “regular” brand had upwards from 500 mg for 1/2 cup. Here’s the kicker: I bought a bag of dry black beans, which only contain 20 mg of sodium for the same amount! Not only that, the dried beans tasted crunchier and better and I am free to add any other herb or non-sodium spice to it. The food manufacturers make the food so much unhealthier on purpose!
Not to pick on Trader Joe’s because I adore them, but you could get similar ratios on Bush’s beans or other store brands in a can as well. This just blows me away that they do that. Even before my vegan days, if I had a taste of store made “rotisserie chicken”, they always tasted way too salty. If it comes from the store and comes with a wrapper or is in a can, beware of the sodium content, check your labels and consider better alternatives.
Potassium is important because it helps manage electrolyte levels for proper body function. Potassium works with sodium to maintain the proper water/fluid balance in our bodies. Potassium helps the body with nerve function, muscle control and blood pressure. From my exploration on this topic here are the daily recommended amounts of salt and potassium:
Salt – 2,300 mg/day (less if you are older or are at an at-risk ethnicity)
Potassium – 4,700 mg/day
Processed foods are full of sodium and are low in potassium, while fruits and vegetables are high in potassium and low in sodium. Hopefully this fact will steer you further away from processed foods to fresh or fresh frozen foods.
Potassium Rich Foods
There are many healthy options for potassium that are also vegan (for those of us that use those dietary guidelines).
They include: bran cereal, prunes, prune juice, tomato juice, dark chocolate, blackstrap molasses, sunflower seeds, apricots, bananas, cantaloupes, honey dew melons, dried figs, mangoes, papayas, raisins tofu, chickpeas, beans, lentils, avocado, spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin winter squash, wheat germ and almonds.
Baked potato fans will be happy that they contain high levels of potassium, just don’t pick up the salt shaker when you eat them. Bananas are high too, so enjoy those smoothies. Dried fruit lovers like me? Dig in, they contain lots of potassium as well. Because potassium is normally omitted from most nutritional panels, I would recommend Googling “high potassium foods” and get your own list and see what you like to eat and how best to augment your intake of potassium.
When looking at information for leg cramps, I found that most of the common causes listed were dehydration, excessive use of alcohol or caffeine, tobacco use, too much sugar, reduced activity and lack of sodium. There didn’t seem to mention lack of potassium very much. Lack of potassium is what I’ve heard people say the most when guessing the cause of leg cramps.
One night not too long ago, I woke up with one of those wretched nocturnal leg cramps. Because I eat several small meals a day, often times, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I wake up hungry. So that night I got the leg cramp, my stomach woke up also because cramps last for a few minutes before they go away. I hobbled into the kitchen and grabbed a banana and ate it and the leg cramp pain left nearly instantaneously! A medium banana has around 450 mg of potassium, so that was enough to calm the muscle spasms in my leg. A very interesting discovery!
Before I go, I’d like to urge you once again to consume more fresh or fresh frozen fruits and vegetables and less processed foods. Back off of that salt shaker and begin or continue to exercise to keep potential heart disease at bay. By consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables* and having less processed foods, you will cut your sodium consumption way down and increase your consumption of potassium. The older you are, or if you are Hispanic or African American, the more important these concepts are to your health according to the studies. Be aware of the importance of the value of reduced sodium and increased potassium. Remember 4,700 mg a day potassium and “less than” 2,300 mg per day sodium. Take action by eating your fruits veggies and avoiding those prepackaged microwave meals, even the ones that say “healthy” on the label and most importantly, avoid leaving your fingerprints on the salt shaker.
A Helpful Tip
*I realize that fresh veggies and fruits cost a lot of money at the supermarkets, especially the ones sold in those tiny bags. The price is outrageous, especially if you eat them in quantity like I do. I blow through 5 or 6 pounds of broccoli a week and probably at least a pound of carrots per week; not to mention lettuce, celery and strawberries! I go through 5 to 6 pounds of strawberries in a couple of weeks too. If you get deliberate about upping your fresh veggie and fruit intake, I highly recommend joining a warehouse club to save money! This investment is definitely worth your financial while to do and you can also save big bucks on supplements as well.