Regularly eating bananas and avocados can do wonders for your heart and arteries, scientists say.

Other high-potassium foods include prunes, white beans and spinach.

Pathogenic vascular calcification, also known as hardening of the arteries, is something which affects millions of people worldwide — especially once you get past a certain age. Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham have studied possible ways to alleviate the condition, and found that it significantly correlates to dietary potassium. Basically, their animal studies suggest that if you don’t eat enough potassium, your arteries and aorta stiffen, which in time can lead to serious heart disease.

“The findings have important translational potential,” said Paul Sanders, M.D., professor of nephrology in the UAB Department of Medicine and a co-author, “since they demonstrate the benefit of adequate potassium supplementation on prevention of vascular calcification in atherosclerosis-prone mice, and the adverse effect of low potassium intake.”

In modern times, our diets have shifted massively, and not necessarily in a good way. Although food is more readily available and cheaper than at any point in history, most of the world is not properly nourished. Obesity is running rampant through the developing and the developed world, taking a toll on our health. Cardiovascular diseases are the number 1 cause of death globally: more people die annually from CVDs than from any other cause. Most of these deaths could be averted through behavioral changes, especially in diet and exercising. Simply put, we need to eat less of the bad stuff and more of the good stuff. According to this study, potassium-rich foods fall in the “good stuff” category.

Aortic calcification — comparison between low, medium, and high Potassium (K) consumption. Image credits: Yong Sun et al, 2017 / JCI Insight.

The UAB team led by Yabing Chen, Ph.D., UAB professor of pathology fed mice a diet varying in potassium. They found that especially in the case of mice who were eating high-fat foods, potassium levels significantly impacted vascular stiffness. Mice were split into three groups and given varying levels of dietary potassium — 0.3 percent, 0.7 percent and 2.1 percent weight/weight, respectively. They found that low-potassium mice had a significant increase in vascular calcification. In contrast, the mice fed a high-potassium diet had markedly inhibited vascular calcification.

“Reduced dietary potassium intake has been linked to the pathogenesis of a variety of human diseases, including atherosclerosis, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease,” the study said. “All of these disease share common vascular complications, such as vascular calcification.”

Of course, just because this happened on mice doesn’t mean it necessarily translates to humans. Researchers are planning more studies to solidify their findings, but they are quite confident that the same mechanism applies to us as well.

Journal Reference: Yong Sun et al. Dietary potassium regulates vascular calcification and arterial stiffness. Free access | 10.1172/jci.insight.94920