Decreasing sodium and increasing potassium intakes can help control your blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.

Sodium. This mineral is essential for life, but most people consume too much. The typical daily intake is about 3,300 mg, yet your body needs only about 200 mg of sodium a day. Most of the excess comes from salt added to processed foods, beverages and restaurant foods.

By cutting back on sodium, you can lower your systolic blood pressure by an average of 2 to 5 mm Hg and your diastolic blood pressure by 1 to 3 mm Hg. The benefits of sodium restriction appear to be greatest in older people and in those with high blood pressure.

The American Heart Association recommends that people consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day, which is equivalent to slightly more than half a teaspoon of table salt daily. (Salt is made up of 40 percent sodium.)

One strategy for lowering sodium intake is adding less or no salt to foods during cooking and at the table. However, sodium also occurs naturally in many foods and is used extensively in food processing. For example, cold cuts, canned vegetables, canned soups, cheeses and many snack foods contain large amounts of sodium.

Check nutrition labels for the amount of sodium in the foods you buy and eat, and choose low-salt (less than 200 mg of sodium) or no-salt versions of packaged and processed foods whenever possible.

Potassium. A low potassium intake raises blood pressure, while a high potassium intake lowers it. You can add more potassium to your diet by increasing your consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are also low in sodium and rich in fiber and antioxidants. Citrus fruits and bananas are particularly good sources of potassium, as are avocados, apricots, potatoes, sardines and spinach.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 4.7 g of potassium a day, although this amount may need to be lower if you have kidney problems or severe heart failure. Potassium supplements are not recommended to reach this goal (unless prescribed by your doctor) and may be dangerous for people with kidney disease and those taking a potassium-sparing diuretic, such as spironolactone (Aldactone) or triamterene (Dyrenium), for high blood pressure.

Publication Review By: Gary Gerstenblith, M.D., and Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D.

Published: 05 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 28 Oct 2014