For Better Living: Who needs potassium?


Potassium is an essential mineral and a major electrolyte found in the human body. It plays an important role in nerve function, muscle control, and blood pressure. Potassium is found within all cells of the body, and its levels are controlled by the kidneys. Primarily, potassium functions to regulate water and mineral balance throughout the body.

Potassium works with sodium to maintain the body’s normal blood pressure. Research suggests that increasing dietary potassium may provide a protective effect against high blood pressure by increasing the amount of sodium excreted from the body. A high potassium intake has also been linked to a reduced risk of death due to cardiovascular disease.

Sources of potassium

Potassium is found in many foods, especially those of plant origin such as oranges, avocados, bananas, and tomatoes. Potassium can also be found in fish, meat, and dairy products. Highly refined foods such as oils, sugar, and fats lack potassium.

On average, Americans do not get enough potassium in their diet. In recent years, the American diet has shifted towards consumption of processed foods, such as fast food, canned, or prepackaged food items. Most of these foods contain very little potassium, and are high in sodium. In order to ensure a diet rich in potassium, it is important to eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.

How much potassium?

The Adequate Intake (AI) for potassium is 4,700 milligrams/day for males and females ages fourteen through adulthood. This includes women who are pregnant.

Special recommendations

— For people with high blood pressure or hypertension—Following an eating plan known as the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) may be useful for lowering blood pressure. The DASH diet is higher in potassium, magnesium, and calcium, while lower in total fat, saturated fat, and sodium than the typical American diet. Potassium supplements are generally not recommended for people with high blood pressure. Instead, it is better to eat a variety of potassium rich foods daily.

— For athletes and others who are active for more than 1 hour in duration—Prolonged exercise, as well exposure to temperatures and conditions that result in excessive fluid loss may require increased potassium intake. Low potassium can cause muscle cramping and cardiovascular irregularities. Consuming foods high in potassium can prevent these symptoms. One cup of orange juice, a banana, or a potato is sufficient to replace the potassium lost during one to two hours of hard exercise.

— For those with renal disorders—Potassium intake is inversely related to the risk for kidney stone formation, and those prone to kidney stones usually have diets high in sodium and low in potassium. Anyone with kidney injury or renal failure should monitor potassium levels carefully, as a high concentration of potassium in the tissue can result in the inability to filter potassium efficiently.

Potassium deficiency

Potassium deficiency is not common but may occur from excessive fluid loss due to severe diarrhea, strenuous exercise, or use of diuretics. Deficiency may also result from poor control of diabetes, low-calorie diets (less than 800 calories per day), chronic alcoholism, or kidney problems. Deficiency symptoms include muscle cramps, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, and weakness.

Too much potassium?

There is no Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for potassium because toxicity is rare in healthy individuals. Excess amounts of potassium are normally excreted from the body; however problems may arise in people with kidney problems. If excess potassium cannot be excreted, conditions such as heart problems and sudden death may occur. Potassium toxicity is usually only a problem if one consumes potassium supplements in excess, which may result in muscle weakness, stomach pain, or irregular heartbeat.

Steps to increase dietary potassium

Include fruits and vegetables that are high in potassium—especially avocado, banana, cantaloupe, oranges, prunes, artichokes, potatoes, spinach, and squash.

Prepare sweet potatoes or regular potatoes with the skin on.

Consume non-fat dairy products such as milk, yogurt, or cottage cheese, which contain 300-400 milligrams of potassium per serving.

Enjoy potassium rich legumes such as soybeans, lima beans, and white beans.

Include lean meats such as salmon and other fish, chicken, and turkey—each provide over 400 milligrams of potassium for every 3 ounce portion.

While it is important to consume foods rich in potassium, be aware of hidden sources of sodium in canned vegetables and legumes. Be sure to drain all water from canned food before it is consumed.

Choose fruits and vegetables for a snack, or salt free nuts such as almonds—4 ounces of nuts can provide over 700 milligrams of potassium.

Source: Colorado Cooperative Extension

Creamed Spinach

¼ cup diced onion

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 ¼ cups fat-free half-and-half

4 ounces fat-free cream cheese, cubed

¾ teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 package (16 ounces) frozen leaf spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon shredded Parmesan cheese, divided

In a large nonstick skillet, sauté onion and garlic in butter until tender. Stir in flour until blended. Gradually whisk in half-and-half until blended. Bring to a boil over medium-low heat. Cook and stir for 2 minutes or until slightly thickened.

Add the cream cheese, salt, nutmeg and pepper, stirring until cream cheese is melted. Stir in spinach and ¼ cup Parmesan cheese. Heat through. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately. Yield: 5 servings.

Sandra Cain is the executive director of the Bladen County Cooperative Extension Office.

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