All About Potassium - Ask a Nutritionist

November 9, 2023

Potassium is an essential mineral for life. It's main role in the body is to keep fluid levels normal within our cells. It's also really important for our nerves to be able to send signals around the body and for our muscles to contract properly. Tune into this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist with Leah to learn all about Potassium and how to get more of it.

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Welcome to the “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to have you join us today as we discuss the connection between what you eat and how you feel, and share practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. Now let's get started.

LEAH: Hello and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's midweek segment called “Ask a Nutritionist”. My name is Leah Kleinschrodt. I'm a Registered and Licensed Dietitian with Nutritional Weight and Wellness. And on today's show I'll be answering one question that we received from our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners.

So this listener asked about potassium levels. She says, “Potassium levels are low. What are some real foods that will up potassium; sweet potatoes, bananas, what do you recommend?” So thank you listener for that great question. And the short answer is yes, there are lots of wonderful real whole food options that are high in potassium. So we will get into those.

Background on potassium

Let me just give a quick little background about potassium in and of itself and why we care about potassium and then we'll get into the foods that can raise potassium. So potassium is one of our minerals. It's an essential mineral for life. Now you'll see potassium if you've ever had lab work done, you'll see this if you've ever had a comprehensive metabolic panel done or CMP, and this is where they also check some of your other electrolyte numbers and your other kidney function labs.

So this will have like your sodium chloride, magnesium. Again, some of those kidney markers on there. So usually it's all in one panel. It's a pretty common lab panel to run. Most people get it done at least at their annual physical or might have it done some other times during the year. So potassium is on that list. And potassium, most of the potassium in our body actually resides inside of our cells. There's only a little bit that's on the outside of the cells.

Potassium’s main roles in the body

Potassium's main roles in the body are to keep fluid levels normal within the cells. It is also really important for our nerves to be able to send signals around the body and for our muscles to contract properly. So we get potassium through our diet, through the things that we eat, the the things that we drink. And then our kidneys are the primary regulators of potassium leaving the body.

So we lose or excrete most of our potassium out through the urine, a little bit in our stool, a little bit through sweat, but primarily through the urine. And why we care about potassium, kind of thinking back to what potassium does for our body, both high and low potassium levels can actually affect how well our heartbeats, 'cause the heart is a muscle, right? So it can affect our heart how well it functions and also actually affect how well some of our other muscles function. So potassium levels that get outside that normal range are definitely something to pay attention to.

Low potassium levels can also increase blood pressure. Again, think that it, it regulates kind of fluid volume within the cells. It increases our risk for kidney stones and actually can affect our bone turnover rate. So again, paying attention to potassium is important.

How can a person become low in potassium?

We can get low in potassium for a couple different reasons. One reason being if we don't eat a really well balanced diet, especially really high in ultra processed foods, more of the standard American diet and we're missing out on a lot of fruits and vegetables. But we can also get low potassium if we have chronic diarrhea or if we have a lot of vomiting in a short period of time, 'cause we're just having trouble hanging onto fluids in our bodies.

We can get low in potassium if we're on certain medications that waste potassium. So one example would be there's certain blood pressure medications called diuretics that will cause us to lose it. It pulls fluid off but along with the fluid goes the potassium as well. Overusing laxatives: that can do it. And then it is something that we need to pay attention to for our clients or patients who are on dialysis for kidney disease.

And interestingly enough, actually I was doing a little bit of research for this episode and I also found that being magnesium depleted can also cause us to lose potassium from our bodies at a faster rate. So our longtime listeners know like we're huge fans of magnesium here. So this is just again, score another one for a good quality magnesium supplement or trying to make sure that we're keeping up with our magnesium levels also.

What are some food sources of potassium?

Okay, so hopefully that helps just lay some groundwork there. Now let's talk about the food. So according to the Linus Pauling Institute and the National Institutes of Health, the adequate intake goal for potassium is 2,600 milligrams per day for women and 3,400 milligrams per day for men.

Now our best sources of dietary potassium come from fruits and vegetables, but we also do get a little potassium through some of our other foods like nuts, seeds, dairy products and even a little bit through meats and fish and things like that. The first food people tend to think about for potassium is bananas. That was part of the question. And that depiction is often, you know, the marathon runner or the racer crossing the finish line. And then what's always waiting at the end of the finish line? It's a pile of bananas 'cause we have to replete that potassium and, and you wouldn't be wrong for thinking that potassium is high in bananas. It it is relatively. So one medium banana will give you about 420 milligrams of potassium or so.

Now if you think about making that into a balanced snack, so we have our carbohydrate, which is the banana, say we add two tablespoons of some natural peanut butter to go along with that banana. So that adds about 200 milligrams more of potassium. And then say we add a string cheese for for that protein component, that's another 20 or so milligrams, not a huge amount, but we can count it. So in that one snack alone, now we're up to 640 milligrams of potassium in that one snack.

So for women, you're a quarter of the way to that goal of 2,600 then. For men you're a little closer to 20%. But again, like we're still actually a significant part of the way to those goals. So bananas can certainly work. There are actually other foods that are higher in potassium than bananas. They're just probably not as convenient to hand out at the end of a marathon race as bananas are. So some of the other foods that are great for potassium are actually white potatoes.

In one medium potato, and again, it's hard to kind of quantify what a medium potato is, but one medium white potato is 920 milligrams of potassium. Beet greens, that's over a thousand milligrams of potassium in one cup of cooked beet greens. Now that's, that's a lot of, a lot of greens, but bear with me here. Some of our other darker leafy greens, think Swiss chard, spinach, they're also going to be quite up there. So for a cup cooked, you're again right around in that range of like 850 to 950 milligrams of potassium per cup.

Some of the other ones that I think about are acorn squash and in general, just some of the other squashes too: butternut squash and kabocha squash. Acorn squash is about 900 milligrams of potassium per cup cooked. Yams or sweet potatoes, they're around the same, around 900 milligrams per cup cooked. Cantaloupe and honey dew melon, those are around 700 milligrams of potassium per cup.

Avocados are great. They're a little over 700 milligrams of potassium per avocado and and broccoli, again just kind of tossing out 'cause a lot of people eat broccoli, that's around 460 milligrams of potassium. So you know, some of these things, again, like the beet greens, you might not necessarily sit down and eat that whole portion size all in one sitting. Like you might not sit down and eat that whole cup of cooked greens or you might not eat a whole avocado in one sitting.

But if we do some mixing and matching of these items at our various meals and snacks throughout the day, we can actually still, as long as we're eating real foods, usually still get to that potassium goal pretty easily. So a high potassium meal, this I'm just, there's one example that I kind of wrote out here. So one example that of a high potassium meal could be four ounces of beef. So think about like a four, four ounces of steak. That'll get you about 400 milligrams of potassium.

On the side if you have a half a cup of potatoes, so again, somewhere around 400 to 450 milligrams of potassium. You do a small spinach salad on the side, about 400 milligrams of potassium there, and then do a half of an avocado for that good healthy fat. That's about 350 milligrams of potassium. So just in that one meal, say that one dinner meal, you have right around 1600 milligrams of potassium. So for women, that is right in the ballpark of about 60% of your potassium needs and that's just from that one meal.

So you do that or do something similar to that three times a day. And again, maybe you're doing a banana, peanut butter, cheese stick type of example for a snack. Again, like usually we can make a lot of ground eating our fruits and our vegetables, real whole foods and get a good amount of potassium in just by eating mostly the Nutritional Weight and Wellness way.

So hopefully this helps conceptualize what a higher potassium eating plan might look like. And again, if we place an emphasis on real whole foods at most of our meals, we can hit that potassium mark. So hopefully that is helpful. And I want to thank you so much for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition’s “Ask a Nutritionist”. And if you listeners have a question you would like us to answer, we invite you to join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community by searching Dishing Up Nutrition on Facebook.

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