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Most people understand the importance of eating a diet rich in vitamins and nutrients. But here’s a mineral you need to start paying extra attention to: potassium. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that adult men and women consume 4,700 milligrams of potassium daily.
But less than 3 percent of adults in the United States consume the daily recommended intake of potassium, according to a 2017 report from the International Congress of Nutrition. In fact, the 2013-2014 What We Eat in America survey found that American women age 20 and older consume an average of just 2,312 milligrams every day. Yikes!
The good news is that potassium-rich foods aren’t hard to find. We don’t have to shop for unusual items at the grocery store or rely on potassium supplements to up our intake of this critical nutrient. Potassium-rich foods can be found in nearly every section of the food pyramid, and the bodies of healthy individuals typically do a good job of absorbing the nutrient from potassium-rich foods, says Amy Goodson, a registered dietitian in Dallas. Goodson works to help most of her clients (typically busy families and athletes) hit optimal potassium levels through food alone.
Here’s her expert advice on the importance of this mineral for your health, warning signs you might be deficient in potassium, whether you need to take potassium supplements, and the most potassium-rich foods you should eat. (Surprise: Bananas didn’t even make the top 10 list!)
Why You Need It
With so many differing opinions and recommendations on what factors into a healthy diet, it’s difficult to find a reason to prioritize one mineral over another. One source tells you to focus on calcium, another stresses iron, while a third harps on zinc. Why exactly do we need to pay attention to potassium?
“Potassium is necessary for the function of all living cells and is thus present in all plant and animal tissues,” says Goodson. “It’s the third most abundant mineral in the body and is important in maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance in the bodies of humans and animals.”
But our cells aren’t the only part of our bodies that demand potassium. Muscles—especially our heart—also depend on potassium to contract when we move and exercise.
“Potassium and sodium work together to regulate the water and acid–base balance in the blood and tissues. It also works by creating a sodium–potassium pump that helps generate muscle contractions, including regulating heartbeat,” says Goodson.
The relationship between potassium and sodium may offer other valuable health benefits as well. For example, while many public health initiatives have recommended reducing consumption of sodium to lower your risk of stroke, a report in the Journal of the American Heart Association said that increasing potassium intake may provide similar results.
As with many areas of scientific study, researchers are still looking for definitive answers. Another report noted that the effect of consuming potassium-rich foods may be mostly related to the effect it has on blood pressure: “the benefits of dietary potassium may be primarily through its effect on blood pressure. High dietary potassium is associated with a decrease in blood pressure, particularly in the context of a high-sodium diet.”
“Potassium causes a reaction in the blood vessels and has been shown to help lower blood pressure in some individuals,” Goodson explains.
And if you’ve been feeling down lately, start looking at your potassium and salt intake. Research from Australia’s Deakin University has found that a low-sodium diet with lots of potassium-rich foods might improve symptoms of depression and tension.
From your head to your heart, you’ll reap numerous health benefits by adding potassium-rich foods to your regular diet.
Signs Your Body’s Craving It
Signs of nutrient deficiency manifest in our bodies in many different ways. It might not always be obvious that you’re lacking something critical in your diet. How do you know when your body is craving potassium-rich foods?
It can actually bit a little tricky, says Goodson.
“There’s no one sign of potassium deficiency. Low potassium levels, known as hypokalemia, can cause weakness and muscle cramping. You might have nausea, vomiting, constipation, or an irregular heartbeat. However, those can also be symptoms of many other health issues,” she explains.
Eating lots of potassium-rich foods and tracking how much of the mineral you’re consuming will generally help you avoid a deficiency of this nutrient. However, people who exercise excessively, have an eating disorder, or take certain prescriptions (such as some blood pressure medications) may have trouble maintaining their potassium levels with food alone. They may need to enhance their diet with potassium supplements.
“These situations could cause you to lose more fluid than other individuals, and you might need to consume more potassium,” says Goodson.
If you haven’t been feeling well lately and think low potassium might be to blame, make an appointment with your doctor. He or she can check your levels with a simple blood test and offer guidance on the best solutions for your body.
Beyond the Banana
Looking to join the top 2 to 3 percent of the population that consumes enough potassium? Surprisingly, it’s not that difficult, and you can find everything you need at your local grocery store.
You can start with everyone’s favorite potassium-rich food, the banana, which has around 422 milligrams of potassium. But you’ll need to eat more than 10 bananas every day get the recommended 4,700 milligrams of potassium you need, which would drive anyone, well, bananas.
“So many people think that just one food provides the nutrient, but that’s just the result of marketing,” says Goodson.
Contrary to what many believe, bananas aren’t the best or only source of potassium. There are dozens of other foods that contain even more potassium than the peelable tropical fruit. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion has an entire list of potassium-rich foods , but here are some easy ones you can add to your diet right now:
½ cup = 595 mg
As one of the least expensive sources of protein, beans are an essential food for anyone who wants to eat healthy on a budget. Pop white beans in a Tuscan-style soup, mash ‘em up into a dip, make a Southwestern-style chili, or sprinkle them in salads to get a punch of protein and potassium. Or get creative and whip up a batch of bean-based blondies with pumpkin and chocolate chips for the ultimate healthy treat. Savory or sweet, the choice is yours.
1 cup = 689 mg
Are you loyal to your morning cup of coffee? Consider swapping it out for some carrot juice, at least once in a while. Just a cup of this bright orange goodness contains about 20 percent of your daily potassium needs. It also contains 25 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin B6, which helps regulate the balance of potassium and sodium. Make it with an at-home juicer or pick up a bottle at your local health food store.
1 medium = 941 mg
When you want something nutritious that doesn’t require a lot of preparation, what can be easier than baking a potato? White potatoes are one of the best potassium-rich foods you can find at the market. Load up a baked medium white potato with steamed broccoli, thinly sliced bell peppers, and some shredded cheese for a flavorful meal with lots of nutrients.
1 medium = 542 mg
While not quite as rich in potassium as their pale white cousins, sweet potatoes still contain a healthy dose of this essential mineral. However, the sweet spuds beat white potatoes when it comes to protein and vitamin A. You can enhance baked sweet potatoes’ natural flavor with a drizzle of honey and some cinnamon. Or go savory with finely chopped rosemary and a light drizzle of olive oil—let your palate drive your decision.
¼ cup = 669 mg
Don’t throw out the tiny bit of tomato paste that often remains after you make a recipe. Just a few tablespoons of tomato paste can help you meet your potassium needs in no time. And if you’re looking for more reasons to eat it, here are three: Tomato paste is rich in vitamins A and C along with fiber. You can cook up a hearty bean salad with tomato paste, smear it on English muffins to create a base for customizable mini pizzas, or use it as the starter for spaghetti and meatballs.
½ cup = 485 mg
These green pods might just be mini health miracles. Not just rich in protein, this low-fat food also contains fiber, iron, and vitamin C—without a ton of calories. Steam up some edamame as a potassium-rich alternative to popcorn the next time you plan to binge-watch movies on the couch. Pro tip: Dust edamame with some chili, garlic powder, or Parmesan cheese to boost the flavor of this healthy snack.
½ cup = 448 mg
Whether you bake it, puree it into a soup, or roast it, this fall favorite will help you meet your potassium consumption needs. You might not realize it, but the skin is also edible, and it contains valuable antioxidants and fiber.
Plain Nonfat Yogurt
1 cup = 579 mg
How versatile is plain yogurt? On its own, it has about 13 percent of your potassium needs. But mix it up with some banana, strawberry, or dried apricots for breakfast and you can easily get a third of your potassium needs for the day. Talk about a breakfast of champions!
Wild Atlantic Salmon
3 oz = 534 mg
Potassium is just the beginning of what makes salmon a win for your diet. The fish also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower blood pressure and improve heart health, according to the American Heart Association. If you don’t have access to fresh-caught salmon or time to cook, you can pick up a canned version for similar health benefits.
½ cup = 478 mg
A Southern food staple, lima beans make for a tasty side dish that’s rich in both potassium and protein. You can keep them as a simple comfort food with a little bit of butter and cracked pepper, or go sophisticated and cook lemon-garlic lima beans for a plate bursting with flavor.
When to Consider Supplements
With so many people deficient in potassium, you might be wondering if it’s worth picking up a bottle of potassium supplements from the health food store. After all, isn’t it easier to pop a pill than seek out potassium-rich foods at every meal?
“I always recommend people get their nutrients from food,” says Goodson. “They’re better absorbed from food, and those foods also contain a lot of other vitamins and nutrients that will benefit the body.”
If you’re not able to get enough potassium from foods, a daily multivitamin (rather than a potassium supplement) might help you obtain the right amount for your health. However, some people with certain medical conditions may benefit from the use of supplements. Goodson says you should always check with your physician before adding potassium supplements to your diet. They can take a look at your medical records to determine if potassium supplements are right for you.
But how much is too much?
You already know that a lack of potassium could cause health issues. But what happens when you consume more than the recommended intake of potassium?
“Most people with normally functioning kidneys do not run the risk of too much potassium from eating a balanced diet,” says Goodson. “If you do have too much, your kidneys just excrete it out.”
But she notes that potassium supplements could create health issues for people with kidney disease or people taking certain medications. High potassium could create a condition called hyperkalemia, with symptoms that include chest pain, weakness, numbness, and trouble breathing.
“Always check with a doctor before using a supplement. You want to make sure it’s safe for your body and there’s no contraindications with other medications you’re taking,” says Goodson.
In short: Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, and dairy to meet the recommended nutritional goals for potassium intake, no more and no less. And don’t fall for the marketing myth that the banana is the best potassium-rich food at the grocery store.