Potassium does a body good

By Beth Cecil, RND, LD
Manager of Community Education & Wellness

What do you think of when you hear the word potassium? Bananas, orange juice, leg cramps, possibly even kidney disease? For most of us, that may be the extent of it.

We know that our bodies need calcium for bone health and that we should limit our sodium for better blood pressure control. People supplement with B vitamins, iron and others, but aside from the occasional leg cramp, potassium gets very little attention.

This is too bad because potassium has some great health benefits. And most Americans aren’t getting enough in their diets, consuming only about half of the recommended level each day.

Potassium, an electrolyte, is essential for our body’s growth and maintenance and is needed to keep a normal balance of fluid between the cells and body fluids. Potassium also plays a key role in nerve stimulation and muscle contraction.

While a severe potassium deficiency, also called hypokalemia, is rare, it can actually lead to serious health consequences including death. A moderate deficiency, much more common, can lead to long-term health negative health effects.

Scientists have been studying the effects of potassium on cardiovascular health for years. Recently, they have found studies supporting the idea that a moderate potassium deficiency can lead to high blood pressure and related cardiovascular events (heart attack and stroke) as well as an increased risk for kidney stones and bone loss.

In short, eating more potassium may lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of stroke. And for some folks, increasing their potassium intake may be a more useful and efficient heart health strategy than trying just to simply reduce sodium intake. This is mainly because it is much easier for us to eat more rather than less.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a daily intake of 4,700 mg of potassium each day. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey follow-up study, American men are consuming between 2,900 and 3,200 mg of potassium on the average and American women are getting roughly 2,100 to 2,300 mg a day.

So how to we increase our intake to better meet these needs? It’s simple; just eat more fruits and vegetables. (I know, here I go again talking about the fruits and veggies!)

There are many tasty fruits and vegetables that are good sources of potassium such as bananas, oranges, grapefruits, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, prunes, apricots, kiwifruit, tomatoes, potatoes, tomato juice, prune juice, greens, dried beans, and bran. Foods like these can easily be incorporated into our diets.

The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan is a perfect example of this. If you are familiar with it, you may know that it emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. It has also been scientifically proven to lower blood pressure. The DASH eating plan is recommended by the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

As always, the diet is the best way to obtain recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals such as potassium. If you are thinking about using a supplement, proceed with caution and seek your physician’s advice before you do so.

The pressure is on, so here is yet another good reason to increase your daily intake of fruits and vegetables.