BLUE SPRINGS, Mo.– Doctors and nutritionists often focus on reducing sodium in our diets to maintain heart health. That’s important, but don’t overlook the role of potassium, says Lynda Johnson, nutrition and health education specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine indicates that lowering sodium intake and increasing potassium intake might be a key to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers found those who consumed the most sodium relative to potassium had a 46 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

According to Johnson, most Americans have a daily sodium intake that is almost twice the recommended amount, while their potassium intake is less than half of the recommended target daily amount of 4,600 milligrams.

“Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that public health messages should emphasize the importance of increasing potassium while lowering sodium intake to reduce deaths related to heart disease,” Johnson said.

Sodium and potassium work together to maintain fluid balances, create nerve signals for muscle contractions and support proper kidney function. Sodium increases blood pressure by signaling the body to retain fluids, while potassium lowers blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels and helping the body excrete excess fluid. When the sodium and potassium balance is disrupted with too much sodium or too little potassium, the risk for heart disease increases.

Although there is no “ideal” ratio for sodium and potassium, it’s considered better to maintain a higher intake of potassium to sodium.

A health-savvy approach is to cut back on processed foods, which are the leading source of dietary sodium. Look for “low sodium” on food labels, and eat fewer salty snacks, canned soups, deli meats and prepared mixes. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, which are excellent sources of potassium. Boost potassium powerhouse foods like sweet potatoes, tomatoes, lima beans, winter squash, spinach, baked potatoes with skin, white beans, pumpkin and bananas.

An easier way to eat healthier is to follow the new USDA MyPlate guideline and fill half your plate with colorful fruits and veggies, one fourth with starch and another fourth with lean protein. Learn more at

For more nutrition information from MU Extension, including features, answers to frequently asked questions and learning opportunities, go to