Can a Banana Save Your Life?

Published: October 22, 2012
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In earlier newsletters I've discussed how eating salt in itself, for most people, is not a major risk. In fact, several major studies show that higher salt consumption is actually associated with a lower risk of death.

This week I'd like to take the conversation to the next level and talk about what the real issue more likely is regarding salt and health. It's not so much the amount of salt you eat — it's much more about the balance between your intake of three important minerals: sodium, magnesium, and potassium.

These three minerals work as a team, performing many functions within the body. That’s why balancing the three — so there isn’t too much or too little of any one of them — is so important for your health.

Unfortunately, the modern diet isn't balanced. In fact it is horribly unbalanced. Salt intake is increasing, because of the increasing amount of salt that's added during food processing. That same food processing subtracts magnesium and potassium. Meanwhile, people are eating fewer vegetables, fruits and other whole foods — all of which are loaded with magnesium and potassium.

Food processing causes us to lose about half of the magnesium we'd otherwise get in our diets. This loss contributes dramatically to the muscle shortening and pain seen in fibromyalgia. Fortunately, holistic doctors give this issue a lot of attention and routinely prescribe magnesium supplementation for patients with fibromyalgia. (In addition, a good multivitamin powder has a high dose of a very-well-absorbed magnesium.)

Along with magnesium, your body also needs large amounts of potassium. In fact, a new, 15-year study of more than 12,000 U.S. adults showed that those who had too much sodium and too little potassium in their diets were 46% more likely to die than those with a healthier balance of sodium and potassium. (Basically, you should get about as much potassium in your diet as you do sodium.) Plus, the risk of dying during the study dropped by 20% for every 1,000 mg increase in daily potassium intake. To put that in perspective, 18 ounces of V-8 juice has a bit over 1,000 mg of potassium. So drinking a large glass of V-8 a day might be 15 times more effective than cholesterol medications in preventing death!

But potassium deficiency is common — and commonly overlooked. And the problem is difficult to solve with a supplement. The FDA severely limits the amount of potassium allowed in multivitamins, because people with kidney failure have trouble excreting it. Of course, you could take over-the-counter potassium supplements, but it would take a lot of pills to get what you need, and they can taste pretty funky.

A much better way to "supplement" your diet with potassium is by eating potassium-rich food. Every day, simply drink 8 to 12 ounces of V-8 or tomato juice (670 mg of potassium per 11.5 ounces) and/or add a banana (500 mg). Blend the banana into a smoothie, or add it to sugar-free yogurt. It's that easy! Other treasure troves of potassium include a potato, a large tomato or half an avocado. Each delivers about 500 mg.

This is a case where a nutrient is a lot easier, healthier and cheaper to get by eating the right foods than from taking a supplement! Some of the benefits of eating more potassium?

  • A decrease in muscle pain and cramping.
  • Improved heart function.
  • Decreased abnormal heart rhythms.
  • Balanced blood pressure.
  • And a host of others (for example, although it hasn't been studied, I suspect potassium also decreases muscle pain).

If medicine focused on inviting us to eat healthy foods that taste good (instead of making us neurotic about everything we do eat), I think people would be a lot healthier — and enjoy their lives a whole lot more!

References

"Sodium and potassium intake and mortality among U.S. adults. Prospective data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey." Yang Q, Liu T, Kuklina EV et al. Arch Intern Med 2011; 171:1183-1191.

"Sodium and potassium intake. Mortality effects and policy implications." Silver LD and Farley TA. Arch Intern Med 2011; 171:1191-1192. Editorial

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