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Pump up your potassium

Potassium is an essential mineral for our bodies, but many of us are not getting enough in the foods we eat.

Potassium is important for our bodies to digest food efficiently and help avoid constipation. It helps build strong muscles and makes them properly relax and contract. Potassium keeps our hearts beating correctly and our blood pressure in a good range. It also helps lower our risk for kidney stones and bone loss.

The Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Science recommends adults get at least 4,700 milligrams of potassium each day. We should consume two to three times more potassium than sodium for our bodies to function well. But many of us have this ratio upside down. The average American gets only 2,500 milligrams of potassium daily while consuming 3,450 milligrams or more of sodium.

If we are healthy, it is almost impossible to consume too much potassium because our kidneys control how the mineral is eliminated. If we eat a lot of potassium, more is eliminated. When kidneys are damaged, or when certain medications are taken, potassium balance can be affected.

Too little potassium, or hypokalemia, can cause weak muscles, abnormal heart rhythms and higher blood pressure. Too much potassium, or hyperkalemia, may cause dangerous heart rhythms and needs to be addressed by your health care provider. It's important to know that you can be deficient in potassium even if the level is normal in your blood. That's because we need potassium throughout our body, not just in our blood.

Fortunately, potassium is found in a wide range of foods. Here are some good sources:

* Vegetables: broccoli, peas, dried beans, tomatoes, potatoes (especially their skins), sweet potatoes and winter squash

* Fruits: citrus fruits, cantaloupe, bananas, kiwi, prunes and dried fruits.

* Milk and yogurt

* Nuts

* Meats: Red meats, chicken

* Fish: salmon, cod, flounder and sardines

* Soy products including veggie burgers

If your potassium level is too high in your blood, choose lower potassium foods. It is impossible to eat a potassium-free diet. Just eliminating a few of the higher potassium foods will usually help.

Potassium supplements are not recommended, unless prescribed by your health care provider. A supplement could affect your heart rhythm. Getting more potassium from food is the better option, unless you are on a medication that warrants a potassium supplement.

It is hard to accurately estimate our potassium intake since nutrition labels on foods don't include the mineral. A good resource is the USDA food database, which you can find on the internet.

Bonnie Brost is a licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.

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