Get Your Potassium from Plant Foods

  • 2 Minutes Read

Most people have heard the message about eating more plant foods. While fiber and vitamins are key nutrients, the high potassium content, and the unique form of potassium make plant foods the ideal source of this key nutrient.

Get Your Potassium from Plant Foods

"Eat more plant foods." Everyone has heard this recommendation, but the reasons aren't always obvious. People assume plant foods are about fiber, or perhaps antioxidants or certain vitamins. Those are all valid reasons, but one of the more critical nutrients in plant foods may be potassium.

Potassium is one of the two electrolytes - the other is sodium - that maintain fluid balance in the human body. Bone strength, blood pressure, glucose metabolism, and numerous enzyme systems are all affected by potassium levels. And unfortunately most people don't consume enough potassium from diet, because they don't eat enough plant foods. Plant foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, are the best sources of potassium. And it turns out the benefit isn't just the high potassium content. The form of potassium in plants, such as potassium citrate, can help neutralize acidity in the body. Potassium chloride, used in salt substitutes and potassium supplements, does not have that acid-buffering capacity.

This acid buffering effect is important for bones. Without it, calcium excretion is increased and bones can slowly demineralize. Risk for calcium kidney stones increases. After years of poor potassium intake, a person might end up with weakened bones. Simply taking calcium supplements may not help strengthen bones if plant potassium intake remains low.

Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is linked to high sodium intake from salt. But in fact, poor potassium intake may be just as important. Research shows that consuming adequate potassium can actually reduce the effects of sodium. Eating too little potassium can make people more sensitive to the blood pressure-raising effects of salt. Diet studies show that, when people increase potassium intake, blood pressure decreases. The DASH diet, which was devised to help lower blood pressure, is actually a high potassium diet.

How much potassium?

The recommended intake of potassium is 4700 mg per day for adults. Diet surveys show that few people eat that much. Average intake for men is about 3300 mg, and for women only about 2400, half the recommended intake. And for people who eat few fruits or vegetables, much of their potassium is from animal foods, lacking that important acid buffering capacity.

Too much potassium?

For people in general good health, it's hard to overload on potassium just from foods. Early humans consumed lots of potassium from plant foods, so the human body evolved to efficiently excrete excess potassium. But supplements and salt substitutes are another matter. The potassium chloride in those can irritate the digestive system. Supplements are typically limited to 99 mg per tablet, which is just 2% of the recommended daily intake. Why take pills when you can get plenty of potassium from real food? You can get about 500 mg from one large banana or an 8 oz cup of orange juice. A large (10 oz) baked potato has a whopping 1600 mg. One cup of cooked kidney beans has 600 mg. The list goes on. While most fruits and vegetables contain significant potassium, the best sources are:

Whole grains are also high potassium. For example, one slice of whole wheat bread has twice the potassium of white bread.

What would 4700 mg of potassium look like? If you consumed one cup of orange juice, a banana, a large baked potato, a cup of cooked spinach, 2 slices whole wheat bread, 1 cup raisin bran cereal, and a cup of tomato juice you'd get around 4700 mg of potassium. And that's not even counting the smaller amounts of potassium in most other foods like meat and milk. The USDA MyPlate graphic serves as a rough guide: fruits and vegetables should cover half your plate at all meals.

Eating low carb?

A poorly planned low carb diet could severely limit your intake of the beneficial forms of potassium unique to fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoiding sweets and processed high carb junk food is a great goal. Just don't let low carb turn into low vegetable and fruit. Focus on high potassium choices to maximize the nutritional impact. In most cases, high potassium foods are also high in other nutrients.

Foods & Recipes->Fruit & Vegetables Nutrients->Potassium
Jun 25, 2013
Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of Food Wisdom for Women and "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen". She writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition.

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