Why is potassium so important?

As a key player in good overall health, you may not be getting enough potassium - the vital mineral essential to ensuring optimal health. Understanding how potassium contributes to good health and determining which foods give you the most potassium bang for your buck will ensure you don't miss the many benefits of this powerful nutrient.

What is potassium? What does it do?

Potassium is an important electrolyte, and is one of the main minerals in the blood. A person cannot live without potassium. Potassium helps carry electrical signals to cells in your body and is essential to ensure our nerve and muscles cells, particularly heart muscle cells, are functioning properly. However, often, potassium is taken for granted despite its role in maintaining fluid balance, and keeping your brain, nerves, heart, and muscles functioning normally.

Eating enough potassium daily is a necessary component to feeling your best, and to help prevent certain chronic conditions. Falling short on potassium on a regular basis could jeopardize your long-term health in more ways than one.

How much potassium do you need each day?

Experts suggest 4,700 milligrams of dietary potassium a day for adults as part of a balanced diet. However, studies show the average intake for U.S. adults averages only 3,200 milligrams per day. Women on average, only ingest an average of 2,400 milligrams.

Why aren't we getting enough potassium? "Relying on convenience and restaurants foods and not eating enough fruits and vegetables is why so many people don't get enough potassium," Heller says. "Fresh and lightly processed foods, including dairy and meat, have the most potassium."

But cooking fruits and vegetables at home is not enough. The way in which you cook determines the potassium levels in produce, too. For example, boiling depletes potassium. That means a boiled potato has almost half the potassium of a baked potato. To preserve potassium in the foods you eat, aim to either leave them raw, roast or lightly steam them.

Of course it's not always possible to eat home cooked meals, so when dining out, make an effort to increase potassium by ordering a side salad, extra roasted vegetables, bean-based dishes, fresh fruit, and low-fat milk instead of soda.

What foods are rich in potassium?

While it may seem easier to add potassium into your diet with vitamins and supplements, experts encourage incorporating whole foods into your diet to meet potassium needs. The great news is many fruits and vegetables contain potassium, including potatoes, white beans, and squash. Interested in learning which foods you should consider adding to your current diet? We've rounded up a list of ideas to get you started.

  • Winter squash, cubed, 1 cup, cooked: 896 mg
  • Sweet potato, medium, baked with skin: 694 mg
  • Potato, medium, baked with skin: 610 mg
  • White beans, canned, drained, half cup: 595 mg
  • Yogurt, fat-free, 1 cup: 579 mg
  • Beets, 1 cup, cooked: 518 mg
  • Halibut, 3 ounces, cooked: 490 mg
  • 100% orange juice, 8 ounces: 496 mg
  • Broccoli, 1 cup, cooked: 457 mg
  • Cantaloupe, cubed, 1 cup: 431 mg
  • Banana, 1 medium: 422 mg
  • Pork tenderloin, 3 ounces, cooked: 382 mg
  • Lentils, half cup, cooked: 366 mg
  • Milk, 1% low fat, 8 ounces: 366 mg
  • Salmon, farmed Atlantic, 3 ounces, cooked: 326 mg
  • Pistachios, shelled, 1 ounce, dry roasted: 295 mg
  • Raisins, quarter cup: 250 mg
  • Chicken breast, 3 ounces, cooked: 218 mg
  • Tuna, light, canned, drained, 3 ounces: 201 mg

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

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How can you raise your potassium levels?

Potassium levels in your body are influenced by several factors beyond diet, including kidney function, hormones, as well as prescription and over-the-counter medications. People who take thiazide diuretics, often used to treat high blood pressure, may need more potassium. That's because thiazide diuretics promote potassium loss from the body. Steroids and laxatives also deplete potassium. Other drugs used to lower blood pressure, including beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors, raise potassium levels in the body. People with reduced kidney function may need to limit their daily potassium intake.

In order to determine the proper potassium levels for you, talk to your doctor for recommendations. 

How does potassium in the diet lower blood pressure? Can it prevent bone loss?

"Potassium in the diet lowers blood pressure. High blood pressure is the major risk factor for stroke and heart disease," says Lawrence Appel, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine, epidemiology, and international health at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Appel, who studied the effects of diet on blood pressure, also advises that potassium may curb elevated blood pressure by contributing to more flexible arteries, and by helping the body get rid of excess sodium. Sodium promotes fluid retention, which may result in higher blood pressure.

Maintaining healthy levels of blood potassium is extremely important. While kidneys help regulate potassium levels in our blood, age, diabetes, heart failure, and other conditions may impair kidney function. As a result, potassium levels can rise to high levels called hyperkalemia, which can lead to dangerous arrhythmia, a heart rhythm disorders, and cardiac arrest, which usually is fatal. 

Potassium may bolster bone strength by helping guard against bone loss. Potassium-rich diets also may help reduce the risk for kidney stones.

What is the DASH Diet?

While there's more to lowering blood pressure than a single mineral, potassium can be a great place to start. "Diets that include foods rich in potassium are associated with lower blood pressure, but it's not entirely accurate to give all the credit to potassium," says Marla Heller, MS, RD.

Of all the diets created to address blood pressure, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet contains healthy eating strategies to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Heller, author of The DASH Diet Action Plan, says the DASH diet is based around large amounts of fruits and vegetables, low-fat and nonfat dairy, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lean meats, fish, and poultry. Not only is the DASH diet is a treasure trove of potassium, it's also rich in calcium and magnesium, and minerals, which help reduce blood pressure.

Appel researched the effects of the DASH diet on elevated blood pressure and found that it's capable of lowering blood pressure (hypotension), often in a matter of weeks. Additionally, controlling blood pressure, potassium-rich diets have also been linked to lowering the risk of stroke.

What drugs effect potassium levels?

Some blood pressure medications, especially diuretics, can have an averse affect on potassium levels. Some will lower potassium levels while others may have the opposite effect raising potassium levels (hyperkalemia). Common pain relievers may effect potassium levels, including ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your potassium levels in the blood. He or she can design a health plan to maintain normal potassium in the blood.

Can low potassium levels be dangerous?

Understanding the benefits of a high-potassium diet is not enough. Hypokalemia, also known as lower than normal levels of potassium in your bloodstream, has many dangerous side effects. A blood test can determine if you have low levels of potassium. Rarely, low levels can cause isolated symptoms including muscle cramps, weakness, fatigue, and constipation. If you believe you may be suffering from low levels of potassium, call you doctor to discuss any health concerns that you have.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/24/2019
References
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