Potassium is often overshadowed by more famous minerals, like calcium and iron, but it’s just as important for your overall health.
Your body needs potassium for almost everything it does, from your nerves to your muscles. It’s found naturally in many foods and drinks, but are you getting enough of it?
Lori Schnelker, a registered dietitian with Banner – University Medicine, helped shed light on the benefits of potassium, how much you need and a list of foods that pack a potassium punch.
What is potassium and why do we need it?
Potassium is one of the main electrolytes (along with sodium, chloride, calcium phosphate, magnesium and bicarbonate) in your body. Electrolytes are electrically charged particles that cells in your body use to help your nerves, muscles and heart work properly.
“Potassium protects your heart by allowing your blood vessels to relax, which can lower blood pressure,” Schnelker said. “Lower blood pressure is important in lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke.”
This mineral helps with nerve signals that help with muscle contractions, including the steady beat of your heart. “Without enough potassium, you might experience muscle cramping and an irregular heartbeat,” Schnelker said.
Potassium also plays an important role in hydration because it helps determine the right amount of fluids needed in and out of cells. It works with sodium to maintain your body’s water balance, keeping you hydrated. “If your body doesn’t have enough potassium, water can move outside the cell and dehydrate you,” Schnelker said.
How much potassium do you need?
How much potassium you need depends on sex, age and whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. In general, the recommended amount for those ages 19 and older is 2,600 mg for women and 3,400 mg for men. However, many Americans fall short.
Are there risks from potassium?
Your kidneys help control the level of potassium in the blood. Potassium that is not needed by your body is usually passed out in urine. Healthy kidneys keep the right amount of potassium in the blood. If a potassium level is too high or too low, it can be serious.
“Too much potassium (known as hyperkalemia) can have serious side effects, especially for people with kidney disease if their kidneys cannot remove enough potassium,” Schnelker said. “It can lead to shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat and even cardiac arrest.”
Certain medications, like those for high blood pressure, can also cause your body to hold on to potassium.
On the other hand, some diuretics (consumable items that cause you to lose water), insulin and caffeine can cause you to lose potassium. “If your potassium levels are low for a long time, this can cause muscle cramps, weakness, constipation and irregular heartbeats,” Schnelker said.
Before making changes to your diet, talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian to make sure you include the right amount of potassium. A blood test can be done to find your potassium level.
What foods are rich in potassium?
You might think of bananas when you think of potassium-rich foods, but Schnelker shared others that top the list:
- Peanut butter
- Sweet potatoes and spinach
“All these foods are considered high potassium foods with more than 200 mg per serving,” she said.
Other sources include:
- Vegetables (baked potato, broccoli, yam, avocado)
- Fruits, both fresh (avocado, orange) and dried (apricot, prune)
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes (lentils, lima beans)
- Soy (edamame, tofu)
- Dairy (milk, Kefir)
- Juice (prune, carrot, tomato)
- Sweets and snacks (chocolate, muesli bars)
Many of these foods are included in the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet. DASH is an eating plan high in fiber, potassium, calcium and magnesium and low in saturated trans fats, added sugars and sodium.
Can cooking affect the potassium levels in food?
Yes! Using water as a cooking method can decrease the amount of potassium in food. “This is because the water breaks down the cells in the food and pulls potassium into the water,” Schnelker said.
For high-potassium foods, try to eat them raw, steamed, baked, grilled, roasted or cooked in the microwave.
Here are some creative recipe ideas you can try:
Peanut butter banana smoothies: Blend a banana, peanut butter, yogurt and a splash of almond milk.
Spinach and sweet potato hash: Sauté spinach, diced sweet potatoes and a sprinkle of your favorite herbs.
Avocado and tomato salsa: Dice avocados, cherry tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, lime juice and a pinch of salt. Add it to your grilled chicken or fish or eat it with whole-grain chips.
Can I get potassium from supplements?
You can increase your potassium with dietary supplements, but it is best to get potassium naturally from fruits, vegetables and other foods listed above. For some people, supplements can be harmful.
Check with your provider before you start potassium supplements. They can refer you to a registered dietitian if you need extra help.
While potassium may not get all the spotlight, it is important for your overall health. Talk to your health care provider or a Banner Health specialist to see if you could benefit from adding potassium-rich foods to your diet.