Low Sodium High Potassium Diet: Initial Findings

by Dan Walsh

I’ve just finished a 14-day experiment in which I attempted to reverse the electrolyte balance in my body from a high sodium, low potassium ratio – to a low sodium, high potassium ratio. Low sodium diets are often prescribed for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular ailments, but these diets usually focus solely on decreasing sodium intake, without increasing potassium to compensate. I wondered if such a regiment would not only increase my general cardiovascular health, but also my cardiovascular performance. Could altering my internal electrolyte chemistry increase my athletic endurance?

The short answer is yes. At the end of the 14-day regiment, I had dropped 6 pounds, shrank my waist by 1.5 inches, and had reduced my average peak heart rate by 8%. EIGHT PERCENT! While the manner in which my experimental method was administered should be grossly improved, my initial findings are more than encouraging enough to give the experiment another try.

The inspiration for this experiment was sparked by Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution, and further fueled by my findings on the web, starting with Wikipedia and progressing to scholarly articles: “Relationship and Interaction between Sodium and Potassium” (R. Curtis Morris, Jr., MD, Olga Schmidlin, MD, Lynda A. Frassetto, MD and Anthony Sebastian, MD), and “Adverse effects of sodium chloride on bone in the aging human population resulting from habitual consumption of typical American diets” (Frassetto LA, Morris RC Jr, Sellmeyer DE, Sebastian A).

Quoting from the latter of these two papers:

A typical American diet contains amounts of sodium chloride far above evolutionary norms and potassium far below those norms… The inverted ratio of potassium to sodium in the diet compared with preagricultural diets affects cardiovascular function adversely and contributes to hypertension and stroke. The diet can return to its evolutionary norms of net base production inducing low-grade metabolic alkalosis and a high potassium-to-sodium ratio by 1) greatly reducing content of energy-dense nutrient-poor foods and potassium-poor acid-producing cereal grains, which would entail increasing consumption of potassium-rich net base-producing fruits and vegetables for maintenance of energy balance, and 2) greatly reducing sodium chloride consumption. Increasingly, evidence supports the health benefits of reestablishing evolutionary norms of dietary net base loads and high potassium and low sodium chloride loads.

This research got me wondering if a similar diet could also improve cardiovascular performance. I couldn’t find any such research, so I decided to try it out for myself.

The Setup

I established baseline measurements for my weight, circumference of my waist, and cardiovascular fitness by running a mile at a 7-minute pace and recording the average beats per minute for the last minute of the mile. I had also wanted to include blood pressure as metric, but couldn’t find one of those damn machines and was getting impatient to start.

I kept a food log as best I could an also recorded sodium and water intake. I missed a few items here and there but my sodium intake did not go above 600 mg except for on one occasion when I drank a small carton of milk. Besides a very small amount of salt in the mustard (55 mg per serving) and salsa (30 mg per serving) I used to flavor my dishes, the only sodium I consumed was that which occurs naturally in the meat I ate (and that milk – 200 mg!).

The Result

As I mentioned, I lost 6 lbs and 1.5 inches from my waist, as well as increased my cardiovascular performance by almost 8%. My average peak heart rate (APHR) for the last minute of my baseline mile measurement was 176 BPM, and APHR for the last minute of my mile after the 14-day experiment was 163 BPM. I did not partake in any form of cardiovascular exercise during this period except for one 90-minute judo session.

I fully concede that there could have been other factors at work here. Much of my weight loss could be attributed to what was essentially a low carb diet, and the lower APHR could have simply been due to the fact that I was carrying around six less pounds. Still, the results are encouraging.

Notes

The hardest part about maintaining a low sodium diet is that there aren’t many options. I was pretty much restricted to only consuming food that I had prepared. This was not only so that I could keep track of my sodium intake, but also because most anything that’s ready to eat in a grocery store has had salt added to it – and restaurants are pretty much out of the question. This hinderance meant a lot of planning ahead to ensure that I’d have food to eat when I was out and about.

Aside from availability of food, I didn’t really miss salt once I got a handle on flavoring options. Dijion mustards and fire roasted salsa tend to both be low sodium options. Balsamic vinegar is delicious and contains zero sodium. I also used lemon juice black pepper, copious amounts of garlic, and other herbs such as parsley to add zest to my turkey burgers and oven roasted chicken. In fact, I think my taste buds have reawakened after going so long with so little sodium. I don’t know how else to describe it, but processed foods now just seem to taste – empty.

Improvements Moving Forward

Above all else, I need to find a convenient way to actually measure the levels of sodium and potassium in my body. Keeping track of my intake is helpful, but is ultimately a crude yard stick. I was also not nearly as good about recording my potassium intake as I was about recording my sodium intake. ┬áThat’s just bad science.

I’m going to take another crack at this, and will post any further results.