Dangers of consuming too much salt and too little potassium

Consumer Reports News: July 13, 2011 08:23 AM

Consuming lots of sodium and not much potassium might increase your risk of an early death from any cause by about 50 percent, and nearly double your risk of death from a heart attack, according to a report this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. And an accompanying editorial argues that consumers need more information about their food, including the potassium content.

The research suggests that cutting back on sodium, increasing your potassium, or doing both might improve your blood pressure and cut your risk of other serious health problems. The findings help explain why cutting back on sodium alone might not do as much to reduce one’s chances of having a heart attack or stroke, or of dying from heart problems.

In the new study, researchers from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention and elsewhere analyzed data from 12,267 people who participated in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. After nearly 15 years, on average, 2,270 of the participants had died; 825 of the deaths were attributed to cardiovascular disease and 433 to ischemic heart disease.

After adjusting for other variables, a higher sodium intake was related to increased all-cause mortality, and a higher potassium intake was associated with a lower mortality risk.

The authors wrote that “Public health recommendations should emphasize simultaneous reduction in sodium intake and increase in potassium intake.”

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting intake of sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day for people 51 and older, African Americans, and those who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. The dietary guidelines recommend that other people consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. In addition, the guidelines recommend that people choose more potassium-rich foods, advising 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day.

It would help consumers if the Nutrition Facts panels of food labels included potassium content information, according to an accompanying commentary by Lynn D. Silver, M.D., and Thomas A. Farley, M.D., from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The department—along with 35 health authorities and organizations, including Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports—also called on the federal government to track nutrients in the U.S. food supply by building a public and product-specific national nutrition database. The database would provide consumers with easy access to the nutrition information already required by the Food and Drug Administration on packaged food labels.

Chuck Bell, programs director of Consumers Union, said:

To make wise decisions, consumers need accurate, current information about the nutritional content of packaged and restaurant foods. The National Nutrition Database will provide a comprehensive snapshot of all products that are on the market, to help consumers compare nutrition information, and choose products that best serve their needs.

Bottom line: This study suggests that a high sodium intake, especially when combined with a low potassium intake, is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. Unfortunately, nearly all Americans consume too much sodium and far too little potassium. See our tips for reducing sodium intake and our list of foods that are rich in potassium. And see more tips for how to lower your blood pressure and prevent heart disease.

Sodium and Potassium Intake and Mortality Among US Adults [Archives of Internal Medicine]

Sodium and Potassium Intake: Mortality Effects and Policy Implications [Archives of Internal Medicine]

Doug Podolsky

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