Potassium is an essential mineral that plays many important roles in the body, from helping to keep the heart beating at a steady rhythm to maintaining normal fluid levels within cells. Scientists are also learning more about the role potassium may play in improving cardiovascular health, controlling blood sugar and even maintaining healthy bones.
Many people have heard that bananas are high in potassium, but this mineral is also available in a variety of other foods, including dried apricots, chicken, and beans.
Read on to discover why we need this mineral and what happens when we don’t get enough.
What is potassium?
Potassium is an essential mineral found in many different foods. It’s also an electrolyte — a particle that carries a small electrical impulse, or charge, that helps cells, nerves, and tissues in the body function.
According to the National Institutes of Health (Opens in a new tab) (National Institutes of Health) The body needs potassium for nearly everything it does. Humans cannot produce potassium themselves, so it is important to get enough potassium in the diet.
What does potassium do to the body?
Potassium plays an important role in how the body functions. Yassi Ansari (Opens in a new tab)It primarily helps with muscle contractions, manage blood pressure, and regulate our hydration status—basically fluid levels within our cells, a California-based registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics told Live Science.
“It also supports overall heart function and bone health,” she said.
Yasi Ansari is the owner of a consulting clinic specializing in Nutrition for Sports Performance and Wellness. She also works with teens with eating disorders at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Ansari graduated from UCLA and holds a graduate degree from California State University, Northridge, in Family and Consumer Sciences (emphasis on nutrition and dietetics).
Low potassium levels are associated with cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure and stroke, but until recently health experts didn’t understand why.
However, a 2017 study published in the journal JCI Insight (Opens in a new tab) It was found that in rats, low levels of potassium in their diet led to a buildup of calcium in the muscle cells inside the arteries, causing them to harden and reducing blood flow. Researchers have also found that this process can be reduced by increasing potassium intake.
However, this was an animal study, so the results don’t necessarily translate to humans, but it does offer one theory as to how low potassium levels may relate to cardiovascular issues.
According to the National Institutes of Health (Opens in a new tab)A diet low in potassium increases the risk of calcium buildup in the urine. This is because a low potassium intake hinders the reabsorption of calcium within the kidneys. Too much calcium can lead to a buildup of crystals in the kidneys – also known as kidney stones.
Control of blood sugar and type 2 diabetes
About 1 in 10 Americans has diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Opens in a new tab) (CDC), of which approximately 90% to 95% have type 2 diabetes.
Scientists are looking into the role potassium plays in helping to regulate blood sugar levels. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Opens in a new tab) It found that low potassium levels may be a predictor of type 2 diabetes, especially in African Americans. However, more research is needed to understand how potassium can control blood sugar and its role in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
High potassium intake has also been associated with increased bone density and bone strength. While researchers aren’t clear why this is, one theory is that potassium helps neutralize acids that occur naturally when you eat animal protein and sodium, according to the National Institutes of Health. (Opens in a new tab). Without enough potassium to neutralize these acids, calcium is pulled from the bones to do the job, and without enough calcium, the bones become weaker.
The electrical signals from potassium help muscles contract properly without causing cramps, weakness or pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. (Opens in a new tab). They also regulate the contractions of the most important muscle in the body – the heart – which leads to the heartbeat. Low levels of potassium. Known as hypokalemia, it can increase the risk of irregular heart rhythms, which can be life-threatening.
How much potassium does the body need?
There is currently no Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for potassium, but there is an adequate intake (AI). These are created by expert committees from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Ansari said the AI gives an idea of the approximate amount people should be consuming each day when there isn’t enough clinical evidence to establish the RDA.
According to the National Institutes of Health, adult women 19 years of age or older have an AI of 2,600 mcg of potassium per day. Pregnant or breastfeeding women need a little more — 2,900 mg and 2,800 mg, respectively. The ai for potassium in men is 3400 mg.
For those with a medical condition, or who are taking medications that affect the amount of potassium they excrete through urine, the above recommendations may not apply. Instead, talk to a healthcare professional about how much potassium you need.
According to Ansari, any of the following conditions could indicate that potassium intake may be too low:
- Muscle cramps and spasms
- kidney stones
- Decreased bone health
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle weakness and fatigue
What are the best sources of potassium?
Many foods contain potassium, including many fruits and vegetables. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables each day should be enough to get all the potassium your body needs.
“If a food source has 20% or more potassium per serving on the label, it is considered a ‘high’ potassium source,” Ansari said.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Opens in a new tab)Harvard Health (Opens in a new tab) and the National Institutes of Health (Opens in a new tab) Suggest the following foods as good sources of potassium:
- Dried fruit, including apricots, prunes, and raisins
- Banana, orange and cantaloupe
- Leafy greens, such as spinach, beets, and broccoli
- Potatoes and squash
- Beans and lentils
- Chicken and salmon
- Nuts such as cashews and almonds
- Orange juice, low fat milk, fortified plant milk and coconut water
Ansari said potassium deficiency is rare, so taking potassium as a supplement isn’t necessary unless someone has a specific medical condition.
“Talk to a dietitian and your doctor to make sure the supplement is right for you,” she said. “It may be best to eat more potassium-rich foods, as potassium supplements tend to have less potassium than whole foods. Plus, eating more potassium than you need can cause side effects.”
This can include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, and nausea or vomiting.