Just like a movie, musical act or superhero duo where headliners get all the glory but it’s often the supporting people that really make it work, potassium has been flying under the radar all this time while sodium, in a glorious rise to fame, has gotten all the attention. Sodium and calcium seem to get all the publicity these days but magnesium and potassium are the ones that really hold the body together and make their mineral counterparts work properly. Since I’ve already covered sodium, calcium and magnesium I figured it was time to give potassium it’s much deserved time under the spotlight…
Potassium: Best Supporting Actor
Often merely given the brush aside thought of being in bananas and important so you don’t get muscle cramps, potassium has lived in obscurity for most of its known existence. What we have failed to realize is that it just might be the thing that not only provides necessary biological functions but it might be the substance that gives us the clarity we’ve been searching for when it comes to the concerns and problems we have developed with sodium. Similar to the pairing of calcium and magnesium, where both are tremendously important and exist in harmony/balance, but only calcium gets talked about, the pairing of sodium and potassium is often overlooked in favor of just focusing on sodium.
Why Is Potassium Important?
For many years, due to similar chemical structure, we didn’t/couldn’t distinguish sodium and potassium. Now we have found not only are they different substances with distinct contributions to our biology but amazingly their real power comes out in the harmony that makes some very basic and vital things possible.
Potassium (known as element “K”) is a mineral (and electrolyte) that is needed for your body to work properly, including the necessary functions of:
Breakdown and use of carbohydrates
Maintaining normal body growth
Controlling the electrical activity of the heart
Controlling the acid-base balance
Most generally, potassium helps nerves and muscles communicate and helps move nutrients into cells and waste products out of cells. Most famously, potassium and sodium help balance the fluid and nutrients that flow in and out of your cells. When these two are out of balance, your cells’ ability to function optimally are hindered and the body reacts in an unfavorable way to try to adjust and adapt.
A Few Examples of Potassium In Action
This is what underlies most of the muscle cramping in exercise and sports- an imbalance in sodium/potassium that disrupts the muscles’ ability to manage fluid and nerve action, leaving the muscles in spasm. Bringing one or both back to normal and balanced levels restores the body’s ability to control the nutrient flow, electrical current and control of contraction. Although usually thought of in more dramatic and acute cases of the sportsman leaving the field due to massive leg cramps, most of us are much more vulnerable and susceptible to the gradual and chronic impacts of imbalance, which often manifests as mild muscular weakness, soreness or cramping.
Another common acute result of mineral imbalance is bloating or water retention. Almost everyone knows the feeling of eating way too much salt (and not nearly enough potassium to match it) and the bloated feeling you get (along with many other effects) the day or two after. What we don’t think about is the more mild version of slight but constant water retention. If we are always consuming inadequate potassium in relation to sodium we will perpetually live in a state of slight bloating, of which ranges from mildly annoying to potentially hazardous.
This is most commonly seen reflected in high blood pressure. Although very few people are actually salt sensitive, meaning a high salt diet (i.e. high sodium) will cause more permanent change in blood pressure, the consistent low intake of potassium in relation to sodium will keep the temporary bloating/swelling of blood pressure in place. This has always been thought of as the result of simply eating too much sodium, which it sometimes is, but it’s much more likely to be a lack of potassium leading to the increased blood volume and pressure.
All three of the above examples are reactions/adaptations the body makes to the environment we put it into. Using blood pressure as an example, instead of worrying about sodium or taking medication the first thing we should do is examine potassium intake. If it’s too low compared to sodium intake then adding lots of potassium rich foods to the diet should be step 1. If that doesn’t change or help then look at stress or other lifestyle factors before reducing sodium or taking drugs.
The problem actually very rarely seems to be too much sodium, as many have suspected, and researchers are now seeing evidence that sodium levels in the 3000-5000mg* per day might be the most health protective (*when eaten in conjunction with a high potassium intake). The problem, for most people, lies in normal sodium intake paired with the abnormally low levels of potassium.
It used to be hard to get sodium and we are still hard wired to crave and obtain it, where as potassium was almost everywhere. Now, with the modern food availability and eating habits, sodium comes quite easily and potassium has proven much harder to get adequate levels of, much less enough to balance the massive sodium intake many people have.
I propose, as many have before me, that we shouldn’t worry about driving a necessary element like sodium out of the diet and instead promote potassium to headliner status. Sodium is important and I think the drive to limit it has a number of adverse health effects, particularly the more active you are. Instead, a more reasonable (and enjoyable) approach would be to keep eating sodium and salt to taste but also focus on increasing potassium intake to match it. The balance achieved through a bit higher levels of both (as opposed to driving sodium intake down to match low potassium intake) would be far superior in both biological functioning and in dietary enjoyment.
Sources of Potassium
In the natural world and in real food, potassium is everywhere and in great amounts. Adding just a few potassium rich foods might be just what the doctor ordered, particularly if the doctor ordered a potassium supplement, which tends to work but is much less effective than real food (shocking!) Almost everyone “knows” bananas are high in potassium but so are many other foods that are both widely available and easily eaten…
Potassium Rich Foods
The most popular categories are:
– Leafy greens, such as spinach and collards
– Fruit from vines, such as grapes and blackberries
– Root vegetables, such as carrots and potatoes
– Citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruit
– Fish, particularly halibut and yellowtail tuna
– Meats, including red meat and poultry
– Dairy products
Here are a few charts for reference:
USDA Food Sources of Potassium
Low Calorie Sources of Dietary Potassium PDF
My favorites are bananas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, dried apricots, tuna/fish, yogurt and (when possible) bone broth. A serving of each per day and I’m looking at about 3000mg of potassium, which is as much if not more sodium than I typically eat. The general recommendation is at 2:1 ratio, but it varies by the source and gets as high as 4:1 potassium to sodium for those people scared of sodium. Personally, I think a 1:1 to 1.5:1 is desirable and don’t see a need to go any higher than 2:1 with the exception of rare occasions.
Wrapping Up Potassium
Be smart about all the sodium/potassium stuff. This post isn’t meant to excuse nightly frozen dinners as long as 5 bananas follow for dessert. This is meant to think about how we might be foolishly worrying about sodium when the issue is probably the lack of potassium.
The Bare 5 Bottom Line on Potassium:
1. Potassium is very important, just as important as sodium.
2. Sodium isn’t a problem unless potassium isn’t adequate.
3. Limiting sodium is less important than increasing potassium for most people.
4. Potassium rich foods are everywhere so adding some to the diet should be pretty easy.
5. Seek balance in your diet, not restriction and you’ll likely feel and enjoy eating better.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
P.S. It is possible to overeat potassium, if you limit sodium and go crazy with potassium rich foods.
[…] Potassium An important piece to the salt puzzle, and potentially why it has confused us for so long, is potassium. These two minerals work in harmony in the body and when out of balance things go haywire. Too much salt/sodium can be a problem if potassium isn’t also high to balance. Too little sodium is a problem in and of itself but particularly if potassium is high (which happens in the plant based, salt limiting eating population quite often. Think of not the total amount of sodium you consume but how balanced it is with potassium. For much more on this relationship, check out the breakdown on Potassium. […]