Don't worry so much about that salt shaker. Instead, direct your attention to a sweet potato. Or maybe some tomato paste.

All this time, we've been fretting over the dangers of sodium — specifically its ability to raise blood pressure — when perhaps the key lies in potassium.

Potassium is an important mineral that your body needs to keep the heart, kidneys and other organs working. It builds muscles, maintains body growth, helps muscles and nerves communicate, and controls the electrical activity of the heart. The American Heart Association says a diet high in potassium is especially important because potassium helps control blood pressure by lessening some of sodium's harmful effects.

A recent study even suggests that sodium may matter more than salt for teenagers. Researchers followed 2,185 9- and 10-year-old girls for as long as 10 years. They found that sodium intake had no long-term effect on the girls' blood pressure. However, the girls who ate a potassium-rich diet throughout adolescence had lower blood pressure than those who ate fewer potassium-heavy foods. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, suggests that teens would reap more heart benefits by eating foods rich in potassium rather than worrying about salt intake.

Getting enough potassium

Adults should get about 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day. Few people get that much, and low potassium is associated with a risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, digestive issues, cancer and other health concerns.

So where can you get potassium? People automatically assume it's the banana. But a typical banana has only about 350-400 mg.

Here are some better choices for potassium-rich foods:

Sweet potato (1, baked): 694 mg

Tomato paste (1/4 cup): 664 mg

Beet greens (1/2 cup): 655 mg

Baked potato (1, baked): 610 mg

White beans (1/2 cup, canned): 595 mg

Yogurt (plain, non-fat, 8 oz.): 579 mg

However, just because you up your potassium intake doesn't mean you can double up on salt. The American Heart Association cautions that although potassium is helpful, it should be considered as part of your overall diet plan. The amount of fat, cholesterol, protein and fiber you eat, as well as certain minerals (specifically magnesium and calcium) all play a part in affecting blood pressure.

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Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Potassium: What you need to know at any age
Getting more of this key nutrient could be more important than worrying about sodium intake.