Potassium: You Make My Heart Beat

Potassium – how could I live without you? Well, the answer is…I couldn’t. Potassium is essential to life. It might not be the first nutrient that comes to mind when you consider healthy living, but this mineral has many important functions, and many people struggle to get sufficient amounts in their diet.

Potassium is found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, and is often a component of foods that are marked as low- or reduced-sodium. Let’s take a deeper look at the role of potassium and how we can incorporate this nutrient into our daily diet.

What Makes Potassium so Important?

Potassium is one of the major electrochemical components of our body (important for the nervous system and respiration), and along with sodium, chloride, calcium and a few others, it’s responsible for maintaining our fluid and electrolyte balance. It’s also an essential micronutrient for maintaining blood pressure. Low levels of potassium in our bloodstream cause hypokalemia, a condition with side effects like headaches, dehydration, heart palpitations and swelling of glands. Low potassium intake can also result in hypertension, stroke and cardiovascular disease, further underscoring its importance in health. 

In addition to its function as a nutrient, potassium plays many roles in our food. Potassium chloride, a food ingredient derived from nature, is recognized as safe by the FDA for use as a flavor enhancer and a preservative. It provides  taste benefits similar to salt by enhancing the natural flavors that are present in food. As a preservative, potassium chloride helps to keep food fresher longer by preventing it from spoiling or going bad. Potassium is also a food ingredient, providing texture and thickness to many foods such as sauces, dressings and oils. 

How Much Do I Need?

The FDA has recognized potassium deficiency as a public health concern.  For this reason, the FDA made several sweeping changes to food labeling in 2016, including upping the daily value recommendations of potassium to 4,700 milligrams from 3,500 milligrams before. To put that in perspective, the daily value for sodium is 2,300 mg - a little less than half of potassium’s daily value. They also mandated that potassium be included on all nutrition labels. In the past, potassium labeling was at the voluntary discretion of food manufacturers. Look for the amount of potassium (in milligrams) as well as the % Daily Value on the nutrition facts panel of your favorite foods.

How Can I Add More Potassium to my Diet?

The greatest change you could make to increase your potassium consumption is adopting a diet that includes several daily servings of fruits such as oranges, melons and bananas, and vegetables like broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes and squash. Milk, yogurt, poultry, fish and nuts are also excellent sources of potassium.  Bananas are one of the most ubiquitous sources of potassium; a medium-sized one contains 422 milligrams. You can find a comprehensive list of foods here. To make sure I meet my potassium needs, I have made a habit of mindful snacking in the afternoons on a handful of nuts or a fresh piece of fruit.

Different methods of cooking can change the amount of nutrients present in food. There are some important steps to take when making a meal to enhance or retain potassium. For example, instead of using regular table salt (sodium chloride), consider using a salt substitute that contains potassium chloride. This will help replace the saltiness desired in cooked and prepared foods, reduce sodium and increase potassium intake. One important thing to note: Substituting potassium chloride for table salt can result in flavor changes that may take some getting used to. In addition, consider steaming vegetables instead of boiling. Boiling vegetables can cause some nutrients to dissolve into the hot water, but steaming foods helps them retain potassium instead of dumping it down the drain with the water.

Practical Steps to Increase Your Potassium

There are ways to bump up potassium intake while keeping sodium intake in check. Choosing low-, light- or reduced-sodium variations is one way to bring down salt intake. When eating out, ask for your meal to be made with no salt and order a potassium-rich side such as a baked potato or a cup of fresh fruit. That way, you can sprinkle just enough salt with a shaker to satisfy your taste for the main course, and you’re guaranteed greater potassium levels in the side dish. These small and practical steps allow you to reduce sodium and also increase potassium. A win-win situation!

Getting enough potassium in your diet may be a challenge, but don’t be salty! Making a habit of incorporating fruits and vegetables and making a few changes to your cooking and dining habits can boost your potassium intake in a hurry. 

This blog post was written by Jacob Farr  and Ali Webster.