Science of Food column: A duel of salts — sodium versus potassium |

Science of Food column: A duel of salts — sodium versus potassium

Leafy greens like spinach are rich in potassium.
Getty Images / iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Salts, also classified as electrolytes or minerals, are essential for human survival. Salt is a common term to describe a molecule that contains a positively charged ion paired with a negatively charged ion. Sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+) ions both have a positive charge, while chloride (Cl-) and iodide (I-) ions, for example, carry a negative charge. Table salt specifically is made up of sodium and chloride (NaCl). Iodized salt means that it also contains small amounts iodide (in the form of potassium iodide or sodium iodide). These ions play vital roles in the body and when there is an excess, deficiency or an imbalance of salts, this can lead to a slew of problems.


When sodium levels are too high, this signals the kidneys to retain water in order to maintain the proper concentration of salts throughout the body. This excess fluid that the body retains creates higher pressure on arterial and blood vessel walls, leading to the condition we know as hypertension or high blood pressure. And while the human body can usually tolerate temporary periods of high blood pressure, hypertension that persists for a long period of time can lead to heart disease, kidney disease and stroke.

In addition to their role in regulating water and kidney function, sodium and potassium are also crucial for proper nerve and brain functioning and in maintaining a normal heartbeat. The concentration and the movement of sodium and potassium ions in and out of our cells creates an electrical potential that generates nerve impulses, muscle contractions and helps to regulate heartbeat. Potassium in particular also plays an important role in the metabolism of carbohydrates and energy storage in the body. So when sodium and potassium ratios are out of whack, all these systems can be affected causing cardiac arrhythmia, fatigue, muscle weakness, slow reflexes and ultimately death in extreme cases.


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It’s not likely that the main source of excess sodium in your diet is from the salt shaker. Americans who eat a typical “Western diet” consume way too much sodium and not enough potassium and it’s the processed food, fast food and low-quality restaurant food that is the main culprit. These convenient foods not only have been depleted of potassium during food processing, they usually have extra sodium added as well.

On the other hand, a diet based on fresh whole foods will provide a healthy and balanced ratio of salts since many fruits, vegetables, beans and grains naturally have more potassium than sodium. Note that cooking and canning does deplete potassium levels and increase sodium levels to some extent, so eating foods raw or lightly baked or sautéed (not boiled) will help increase overall potassium intake. Foods that are especially rich in potassium include leafy greens like spinach and beet greens, sweet potatoes, broccoli, fish, bananas and most citrus fruits. Beans are also a rich source of potassium, especially white beans, kidney beans and lentils.

Over 50 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure and we continue to spend billions and billions of dollars each year in health-care costs, mostly on pharmaceutical drugs, to treat this highly preventable condition. While some people carry a genetic inheritance that may cause a sensitivity to excess salt intake and the development of hypertension, most people can maintain a healthy blood pressure and a healthy body through dietary and lifestyle choices alone, without the need for blood pressure-lowering drugs. Once again the answer is the same: simply shifting away from processed convenience foods and moving toward a diet rich in fresh whole foods will end the ongoing duel of the salts, and sodium and potassium can work together in harmony.

Dr. Lisa Julian Ph.D. has a passion for organic chemistry, the “molecules of life,” and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches Science and Nutrition at CU Denver and CMC. She can be reached at (970) 401-2071 or For more information about services offered at her studio, visit

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