Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, affects nearly half of adults in the United States according to the CDC—and a major contributing factor is sodium. Unfortunately, American adults tend to consume too much salt: current dietary guidelines recommend keeping salt intake under 2,300 milligrams per day, but the CDC reports that adults consume an average of more than 3,400 milligrams per day.
Keeping an eye on sodium intake is the first important step toward rectifying the problem, but other interventions may be able to help, too. A recent study, published in Nutrients, found that potatoes may help to mitigate sodium retention and thereby may decrease hypertension risk.
How potatoes can help reduce sodium retention.
Researchers sought to observe the impacts of potassium on blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease. In the study, they specifically compared the effects of increasing dietary potassium through a whole food—in this case, potatoes—to supplementing with the nutrient.
“While significant emphasis is often placed on reducing dietary sodium intakes to better control for blood pressure and cardiovascular disease risk, that’s only half of the story,” shared Connie Weaver, Ph.D., the primary investigator. “Potassium plays just as important a role, and perhaps the ratio of potassium to sodium is most important in the context of the entire food matrix.”
In a group of 30 men and women, who were either prehypertensive or hypertensive, researchers found that including a serving of baked or broiled potato (with no additional fat) in an otherwise typical American diet was effective for reducing sodium retention. It also led to a more significant improvement in systolic blood pressure than a control diet. It’s important to note that using baked French fries as the potato source did not have the same positive impact—but researchers noted it did not have an adverse impact, either.
“It’s important to establish clinical trials that follow observational research to establish a causal link between diet and health,” notes Weaver. “For example, in this clinical study baked French fries had a null effect on blood pressure, which counters observational findings, at least in the short term, and helps to prioritize the importance of focusing on a total diet approach for maintaining health versus one that overemphasizes avoidance of any single food or food group.”
“Through our carefully controlled balance study, we could determine the mechanism by which potatoes reduced blood pressure,” she continues. “Overall, we concluded that boiled or baked potatoes can help reduce systolic blood pressure—and baked French fries have no adverse effects on blood pressure and can be included as part of an overall healthy diet.”
The dietary benefits of potatoes, beyond potassium.
Potatoes might have a bit of an unfairly negative reputation when it comes to health—they’re often passed over for their flashier sweet potato cousin. The truth is that classic potatoes can contribute important nutrients like potassium, as well as dietary fiber, vitamin C and B5, and manganese. They’re also a source of antioxidants like flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acids.
“Considering Americans fall significantly short in meeting daily potassium intakes, these findings show the importance of promoting, not restricting, whole food good-to-excellent sources of potassium in Americans’ diets, like potatoes,” Weaver said.
Concerned about salt intake? During an appearance on the mindbodygreen podcast, former research biochemist and New York Times bestselling author Robb Wolf shared why it might be dangerous to focus too much on cutting salt—and spoiler: It relates back to potassium, too.