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Salt, sodium and potassium

 

For a long time we’ve heard that having too much salt in our diets is a bad thing - and rightly so, as a high salt intake is a significant risk factor for stomach cancer as well as one of the most powerful influences on blood pressure - and with it your cardiovascular and dementia risks.

 

Sodium

 

Salt is made up of two substances – sodium and chlorine - and it’s the sodium that can affect your blood pressure. This is because the sodium you eat affects how much water your kidneys extract from your blood.

 

The more sodium there is in your blood, the less water your kidneys will extract. As a result, your blood volume increases and because your circulation is essentially a closed system of tubes, up goes your blood pressure.

 

Potassium

 

There is, however, another side to the coin - potassium. The delicate balance between sodium and potassium governs the degree to which the kidneys extract water from the blood.

 

So while sodium is persuading the kidneys to leave water where it is in the blood, potassium has the opposite effect.

 

The moral of this story? Keep your salt intake down and make sure you eat lots of potassium-rich foods. It’s Salt Awareness Week this week (from 20th - 26th March), led by World Action on Salt & Health (WASH) and Consensus Action on Salt & Health (CASH), so perhaps take the opportunity to find out how much salt is in the foods you eat, and see where you can cut back.

 

Cutting back on salt

 

If you’re cutting back on salt you may notice the lack of the flavour to begin with - but do persevere. Your taste buds will adjust within a couple of weeks and you’ll not only be more sensitive to the taste of salt, you’ll also become more aware of other flavours too.

 

Foods high in salt

 

Salt is used extensively in the foods that we buy so you need to be vigilant and familiarise yourself with foods that are particularly high in salt or sodium, especially:

  • processed meats like bacon, ham, sausages and salami

  • pickles and curry powders

  • microwave and frozen ready-meals

  • tomato ketchup, soy sauce and mustard

  • tinned and packet soups

  • stock cubes and gravy granules

 

In the kitchen

  • use low-sodium alternatives to salty sauces and stocks

  • lemon or limes help to bring out any salty taste in food

  • use alternatives seasonings to add flavour to your food like fresh or dried herbs, spices, ginger, garlic, vinegar, pepper and chillies

 

At the table

  • try adding alternative seasonings to your food, such as lemon or lime juice, herbs, spices, vinegar and pepper

  • use a low-sodium salt – varieties can have up to two-thirds less sodium as well as high levels of potassium

 

Upping the potassium

 

Potassium can actually help to control blood pressure so it’s a great substitute for sodium. Low-sodium salt brands often contain relatively high levels of potassium so that’s a good option if you still want to use salt but great natural sources of potassium include:

  • certain fruits – especially bananas, oranges, tomatoes, apricots and currants

  • mushrooms

  • almonds and macadamia nuts

  • milk and eggs

  • yoghurt

  • tuna and salmon

  • wholemeal pasta

  • bran and wheat germ

  • certain vegetables – especially potatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus, spinach, cabbage and sprouts

Potassium supplements are not recommended as these can lead to excessively high potassium levels - you should instead simply increase your intake of potassium-rich foods.

 

A word of caution

 

Although increasing potassium in your diet can help to control your blood pressure, you should of course talk to your doctor or specialist first if you are already taking blood pressure lowering medication.

 

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