We have long known that the mineral, potassium, is a healthy component of a normal diet and likely provides more benefit than does its counterpart, sodium. For instance, reducing sodium in the diet has been recommended to lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease. However, in a new review article, University of Southern California researchers found that increasing dietary potassium is as important to improving the risk factors for cardiovascular and kidney disease as limiting dietary sodium.
The research team reviewed more than 70 studies related to dietary approaches to regulating high blood pressure and found that the interaction of sodium and potassium is integral to maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. The ratio of sodium to potassium excreted as urine is an indication of how much of these minerals is consumed. When dietary potassium intake is elevated, the kidneys – composed of millions of small tubes working together – shift fluid to the area near the end of the tubes where potassium secretes into the urine. This shift reduces the amount of sodium and water that’s reabsorbed into the body. In this way, high potassium diet signals the body to reduce the amount of sodium that is retained. This reciprocal pattern regulates the levels of both minerals in the body, which in turn helps lower blood pressure. Higher intake and excretion of potassium has also been found to slow the progression of kidney and heart disease.
In addition to analyzing data about the sodium–potassium ratio and its relationship to chronic disease, the research team explored strategies to educate the public about the importance of potassium for blood pressure control and heart health. Suggested policies include:
Requiring manufacturers to print potassium content on Nutrition Facts labels,
Promoting low–cost and easily available sources of potassium (milk, dried beans, potatoes, bananas, etc.)
Encouraging families to cook healthy, plant–based meals together.
“Consuming an abundance of potassium is a good strategy since our physiology evolved and was optimized to deal with high potassium low sodium intake, often referred to a Paleolithic diet,” wrote the research team. In other words, the human body functions best with a balance of the two nutrients.
So lets explore further some facts about potassium, which is also needed for normal muscle growth, and for nervous system and brain function. In addition to reducing blood pressure, potassium seems to work by protecting blood vessels from damage and excessive thickening. This mineral is found in many different foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Ironically, these are the same foods that are associated with better cardiovascular health, a fact that prompts the question: Could the contained potassium be the main component that accounts for such robust heart health attributed to these foods?Probably not, because there are additional components that could also contribute toward the same ends, but the question is intriguing!
HOW MUCH POTASSIUM IS GOOD?
Although there is some debate regarding the optimal amount of dietary potassium, most authorities recommend a daily intake of at least 4,700 milligrams. Most Americans consume only half that amount per day, which would make them deficient in regards to this particular recommendation. Likewise, in the European Union, insufficient potassium intake is common. In a large pooled analysis, Italian researchers reported in 2011 that by raising one’s daily intake of potassium by 1,640 milligram, you could expect a 21% lower risk of stroke. Even greater benefits can be achieved if we combine increased potassium with reduced intake of sodium.
In order to get 4,700 mg of potassium a day, try to get your intake from healthy eating unless your physician says otherwise. Dietary supplements containing potassium, while generally safe, can lead to excessive intake of this element that can be dangerous and, therefore, under most circumstances, are best avoided. Moreover, foods containing liberal amounts of potassium usually also possess other valuable nutrients that promote health in other ways. Several delicious foods can help you reach your potassium goal. Below is a list of great foods that can satisfy your needs as well as your eating pleasure.
1. Sweet potatoes: Surprisingly, this source outranks bananas on the list of foods that are high in potassium. One sweet potato packs a whopping 694 mg of potassium and only 131 calories, plus loads of fiber, beta-carotene (Vitamin A), and energizing carbohydrates. Baked, fried, grilled, mashed, or stuffed, sweet potatoes are one of the healthiest and most delicious foods you can eat. But be careful about what you put on them, avoiding large amounts of butter or trans fats.
2. Fresh tomatoes are great, but tomato paste and puree are even better sources of potassium. One quarter cup of tomato paste delivers 664 mg of this vital mineral, while one half cup of puree comes in at 549 mg. Tomato juice itself has just over 400 mg, but in general includes too much added sodium to be very beneficial. If you love cooking with tomatoes and want to get more potassium into your diet, make spaghetti sauce more often.
3. Those cooked, slightly bitter greens deserve a place at the table in part because they pack a whopping 644 mg of potassium per half cup. The beets themselves are also not only good for potassium (1 cup contains 440 mg) but they also provide generous amounts of folate (Vitamin B9), amounting to approximately 35% of daily adult requirements.
4. White beans are good providers of potassium, with half-a-cup delivering nearly 600 mg, but kidney and Lima beans, as well as lentils and split peas, are all respectable sources. All beans are good in general and appear prominently on any list of the best foods for fiber, so it’s smart to make beans a much bigger part of your diet.
5. Yogurt. Eight ounces of plain old non-fat yogurt contains 579 mg of potassium, while low-fat, whole milk, and cultured buttermilk—yogurt’s tangy cousin—have a little less. Delicious ways to use yogurt include mixing it with granola at breakfast, using it instead of mayonnaise on sandwiches and in salads, and swapping it for whipped cream on desserts. Bonus: Most yogurt products contain probiotics, natural bacteria that can aid digestion and keep your gut healthy.
6. Clams: Canned or fresh, 3 ounces of clams pack 534 mg of potassium and have the highest concentration of vitamin B12 of any food. Use them to make seafood pasta or traditional New England clam chowder.
7. Prunes: Juice from prunes is no joke when it comes to potassium, delivering 530 mg per 3/4 cup; half-a-cup of stewed prunes have nearly 400 mg. While you know prunes are good for regularity, you may not know that eating more of these dried plums can help keep your bones strong too. In one study, women who ate 10 prunes a day had significantly higher bone density than women who ate dried apples.
8. Carrots: The juicing trend means more people will be getting their potassium from carrot juice, which packs over 500 mg in one 3/4 cup. Besides their potassium benefits, carrots and other orange-colored fruits and vegetables are also great for your eyes and vision.
9. Molasses: Looking for a nutrient-packed alternative to sugar or honey? One tablespoon of blackstrap molasses (the thick, dark kind) has nearly 500 mg of potassium and a respectable amount of iron and calcium.
10. Fish: Meaty fish like halibut and tuna have nearly 500 mg of potassium per 3 ounce serving, but cod and even farm-raised rainbow trout have plenty of potassium too. But potassium isn’t the only reason to add more fish and seafood to your diet. Evidence is mounting that regularly eating fish, not taking fish supplements, can increase your lifespan, thanks in large part to the healthy fats in fresh fish; a high fish diet can even reduce your risk of death by heart disease by 35%, according to Harvard researchers.
11. Soy: Unprocessed soy products (think edamame, not soy powder) are a great source of
protein. One half cup of cooked soybeans contains nearly 500 mg of potassium.
12. Squash: Winter squash like spaghetti squash are a dieter’s dream: it contains less than 50 calories per serving, yet contains 448 mg of potassium per half cup. Also helpful is plenty of vitamin A and fiber.
13. Bananas: Everyone thinks of bananas when they think of high-potassium foods, and one medium fruit does pack more than 400 mg of this mineral. But bananas are also the ultimate hunger buster, packed with healthy type of carbohydrate that is filling and tends to prevent subsequent hunger.
14. Milk: This product is a surprising source of potassium, with 382 mg per cup for the non-fat or skim version (1% and whole milk contains a little less).
15. Orange juice: One of the healthiest additions to your breakfast table is 3/4 of a cup of orange juice, which delivers 355 mg of potassium. Orange juice, especially the fresh-squeezed variety, is also a good source of calcium, folate, and several B vitamins.
So this list above can give you an idea of what foods to select with potassium in mind. But there are many more, too numerous to detail here. So keep your eyes on food labels—hopefully more listings will be coming soon—and you can make these judgments for yourself!