Could eating a sweet potato help your heart? Could eating a banana save your life? A number of studies have shown that a diet rich in potassium may be the trick to preventing or even reducing high blood pressure.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, a third of Americans have high blood pressure. High blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, the number one and number three causes of death in U.S. adults.

You may have heard by now that too much sodium in your diet can increase your blood pressure. But did you know that enough potassium has the opposite effect? Adults can help reduce the bad effects of sodium on blood pressure by getting the recommended 4,700 mg of potassium in their daily diet. That's right, consuming enough potassium actually lowers your blood pressure2 and reduces your risk of heart disease.

When you don't get enough potassium the opposite is true. Your blood pressure goes up. Americans in the 'Stroke Belt' region of the U.S., including Virginia and ten other southeastern states, share a common dilemma. They are at an increased risk of high blood pressure and stroke compared to those in other regions of the country. The difference in risk is primarily due to a diet traditionally high in sodium and low in other good minerals, like potassium.

By upping your intake of potassium by even 200 mg per day, the amount found in a medium apple, you may lower and prevent high blood pressure. Imagine being able to go off your blood pressure medicine just by improving your diet. It is possible! One study found that adding the amount of potassium found in five servings of fruits and veggies to your daily diet can decrease your blood pressure by as much as one traditional blood pressure medication. Of course, medications should not be adjusted or eliminated without your physician's guidance.

So, what can you do? Most people can get enough potassium from eating a healthy, balanced diet. Try traditional potassium-rich foods like bananas, baked sweet potatoes, and tomato paste. Also consider other less commonly known options, such as non-fat yogurt, winter squash and lean pork loin. More exotic choices like kiwi fruit and plantains may add the variety you need to reach your blood pressure goals or to prevent deadly high blood pressure.
Potassium is great for your heart, but don't go reaching for a supplement at the drug store. Supplements can give you more potassium than you need, leading to high blood levels of potassium. High blood potassium can cause nausea, changes in nerve and muscle control, irregular heartbeat, or even cardiac arrest and death. Kidney problems and adrenal disorders can also affect the way your body naturally gets rid of excess potassium. So, make sure to talk to your doctor before changing your diet if you have concerns.

In addition to getting enough potassium and limiting your sodium, make sure to get plenty of fiber. Found in your potassium-rich, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, fiber intake also reduces the risk of high blood pressure. Excessive alcohol consumption can spike your blood pressure, so make sure to limit yourself to no more than a drink or two per day. And don't forget about the heart-healthy effects of regular exercise, which will greatly reduce your risk of high blood pressure.

Now put down the salt shaker and processed foods, and start piling your plate with potassium-rich foods. For dinner tonight serve your family pan-seared halibut, baked potatoes, sautéed spinach, cantaloupe and a glass of milk for a meal packed with over 2,250 mg of the 4,700 mg of potassium you need each day. Sit down at the table with your family and talk about the importance of their food choices. Make a plan to get moving and include these delicious, heart-healthy foods in your family's diet more often. Your heart and your doctor will thank you!
For more information about eating right, make an appointment with a registered dietitian at WRNMMC by calling (301) 295-4065.

LT Armstrong is a Dietetic Intern here at WRNMMC in her second phase of the Army Graduate Program in Nutrition.