The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals- Part IV (Potassium and Sodium)

Potassium-sodium-salt

Continued from: Part I; Part II; and  Part III;

POTASSIUM

Potassium is another mineral many people do not get enough of –especially if they overcook meat (the juices leaving the meat leach out potassium) or avoid tubers and fruits (both high in potassium) – or don’t eat meat to begin with.

Benefits of Potassium

Potassium is an electrolyte that is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure (it works in conjunction with – and counterbalances the effect of – sodium) – low levels of potassium, however, are not only associated with a risk hypertension, but also with heart disease, stroke, arthritis, cancer, digestive disorders, and infertility.   As such, potassium is important for proper functioning of heart, kidneys and other organs and maintaining acid-base balance.

Potassium’s primary functions in the body include regulating fluid balance and controlling the electrical activity of the heart and other muscles.  Basically, it helps nerves and muscles communicate. It also helps move nutrients into cells and waste products out of cells.

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Importance of reading ingredient lists and nutrition labels – Part II

(Continued from Part I here)

Sodium

While there might be various dangerous sources of sodium, such as monosodium glutamate (or MSG) or a plethora of sodium-containing food additives, such as sodium benzoate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium citrate, sodium nitrite and sodium acid pyrophosphate – all of which should be avoided completely, Sodium Chloride (or table salt) is the primary source of sodium in processed foods – it’s a preservative and dehydration agent so it is heavily used to inhibit bacterial activity (bacteria need water to survive and multiply).  And packaged foods usually have a lot of it.

Sodium has been blamed in the past for high blood pressure, but recent studies show that this might have been a bit overstated – while loading up on table salt is probably still not a very wise move (and if you avoid processed foods and, as an occasional condiment, use natural, less-processed or unprocessed salts, such as Himalayan pink, which is less in sodium and higher in potassium than other salts – it would be quite hard to overconsume sodium), what might be more important is the balance between sodium and potassium intake.  Sodium and Potassium are the two most important minerals in your body as jointly they regulate the most vital activities, such as carrying nutrients in and out of all your cells, helping your brain communicate with muscles via sodium-potassium ion exchange, etc. – and potassium offsets the hypertensive effects of sodium. When increased sodium intake is countered by equally sufficient potassium intake, most symptoms associated with excessive sodium intake – such as water retention, hypertension, cramps, heart irregularities – usually go away.

So, if you (sigh) do go for packaged food occasionally, at least try read the label and pick the one that has a balance of sodium and potassium – both are usually prominently disclosed on a nutrition label.  Better yet – keep in mind that foods that are OK to consume from a box, a can or a bag do not usually have high sodium content, because none (or very little) is added during processing – let this be your guide when you pick packaged foods.

By the way, if you are an endurance athlete, involved in competitive sports or generally exercise a lot, you might be losing more than the usual amount of sodium (and other electrolytes) through your sweat, so denying yourself salt completely may not be in your best interest – but, again, try to replenish lost minerals through natural and least processed foods.  Drinking soy sauce (which may contain up to a staggering 7 grams of sodium per 100 g. of the sauce), or even, more realistically – specialized “sports drinks”, such as Gatorade (which usually contain a lot of sugar and, potentially, chemical additives, as you read in Part I) is not the best way to do it.  Feel free to season home-cooked foods to your taste and monitor your reaction – if you feel like you are retaining too much water or, if you already have problems with hypertension – dial back.

Carbs and Sugars

Carb and sugar content is, probably, the first thing I look for, when reading nutrition labels, because of how easy it is to let it through your guard and how important it is not to.  You will notice that I do not separate (simple) sugars, such as sucrose or table sugar and other (potentially more complex) carbs, because, eventually, even complex carbs are broken down by enzymes in your body into simple sugars, such as  glucose, and further participate in metabolism in a similar manner.

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