I’m not one for beating around the bush: I’m talking about potassium. And have you noticed that it’s a mineral we hardly ever hear about?
If you’re health-savvy you may know that potassium is an electrolyte and that we need to replenish our stores after we exercise.
But chances are you didn’t know that feeling physically, mentally and emotionally well is dependent on a continual supply of potassium to our cells – day in, day out.
Nor that we need a greater quantity of potassium than we need of any other mineral.
4,700mg a day, to be precise.
Compare that to our daily calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc needs — 1,000mg, 320mg, 18mg and 8mg respectively — and it makes no sense that we hear so much less about potassium than we do about these other minerals.
After all, we need nearly five times as much potassium as calcium. And we need nearly 600 times as much potassium as zinc.
Selenium is another mineral that’s talked about more than potassium — yet we can meet our needs for selenium by eating just two Brazil nuts a day. There’s no such shortcut to getting enough potassium; for most of us, that involves eating pounds of healthy whole foods every day.
And later in this article I’m going to walk you through the “potassium powerhouse” foods you need to know about so you can be sure you’re getting enough.
If you can’t wait you can scroll down to that last section of the article now.
But I truly believe that if we want to maintain good habits over the long haul we need to have as many good reasons as possible for sticking to ’em…so I first want to tell you a little more about how important potassium is to your health.
We’ll start with its relationship to sodium.
Busting the “salt is bad for you” myth
The fact we hear so little about potassium is curiouser still given how much we hear about salt’s role as the leading cause of high blood pressure.
And that’s because, contrary to what we’ve been told, when it comes to our blood pressure — and our overall health — the amount of sodium we consume is a lot less important than the ratio of sodium to potassium we consume.
Without getting too technical here adequate potassium keeps your blood vessels nice and relaxed, meaning healthy blood pressure and healthy arteries. And inadequate potassium? A recipe for hardened arteries, high blood pressure and an elevated risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.
Enjoy salt? Me too. It’s perfectly fine to consume around a teaspoon of salt a day; most health authorities would now agree with this.
But here’s the thing: a teaspoon of salt contains 2,300mg of sodium. That’s less than half the daily recommended amount of potassium (again, 4700mg) – and that’s why it’s fine; as a rule of thumb, our potassium intake should be at least double our sodium intake.
But according to nutritional surveys, average sodium intakes in the Western world range from 3,000 to 4,000mg a day and average potassium intakes from 2,300 to 3,000mg. What this means is that most people are getting more sodium than potassium, and (you’ll forgive me for not sugar-coating this) that is a recipe for (a) feeling crap now, and (b) over the longer-haul, disease and early death.
And that’s because every cell in the body requires potassium for its proper functioning.
And the body doesn’t store this uber-essential mineral so you need to be giving your cells a daily supply of it.
Cranky, crazed or confused? Maybe you need potassium…
Potassium is essential for the electrical reaction that sparks communication between cells.
As just one example of this role, without adequate potassium your brain cells can’t communicate properly.
Hello foggy thinking, fatigue, mood swings, irritability and disorientation. And possibly anxiety, depression or even psychosis.
Having studied potassium’s effect on the brain I am convinced that many diagnosed mental disorders, from “depression” to “dementia”, are really, at root, potassium deficiency.
And not only are pharmaceutical drugs not the answer; if you suffer from any of the above problems and potassium deficiency is the cause, you can sleep, exercise, meditate and cleanse, and you can take supplements and follow an otherwise excellent diet, but if the potassium deficit remains, so will its symptoms.
And maybe you’ve been there (or are there now); I certainly have. Potassium deficiency is a major under-diagnosed root cause of many seemingly intractable health problems. And correcting it is nothing short of life-changing.
I’ve only scraped the surface, here, of why adequate potassium is essential for health. But hopefully I’ve convinced you that it’s worth doing, so let’s move on to the solutions.
Your potassium plan: the three keys to getting enough
1. Eat a diet based around natural whole foods, with as few processed foods as possible.
Eat as much processed food as the average person, and as little fresh produce, and you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the potassium your body needs for optimum health.
And that’s because the more processed the food, the less potassium it’s likely to contain.
Also: many processed foods contain a lot of sodium and remember – the more sodium you consume, the more potassium you need.
Two other ingredients that are common in processed foods are sugar and oils, and these are the two lowest-potassium foods I’ve come across. In fact they contain such a negligible amount it might as well be zero.
Refined sugar contains 2mg of potassium per 100g and oils tend to contain less than a gram!
The more we fill up on processed foods containing ingredients like this, the less likely it is that we’ll be meeting our body’s nutritional needs – especially for hard-to-get-enough-of nutrients like potassium.
So, key number one: eat whole foods.
2. Key number two is to eat plenty of vegetables. Calorie for calorie, vegetables contain more potassium than any other food group (though it does vary from veg to veg; more on this below).
For all sorts of health reasons, we should be eating a greater volume of vegetables than of any other food, and we should ideally be doing this at every meal.
Do this, and your cells will be getting a continual supply of potassium (along with countless other essential nutrients).
3. The third key to balancing your sodium/potassium ratio — especially if you like to add salt to your meals; and really, who doesn’t? — is knowing which foods are highest in potassium, and actively including foods from this list each day.
The potassium powerhouse foods that can really take your health to the next level
Sun-dried tomatoes are by far the richest food source of potassium, clocking 3,427mg per 100 grams.
Regular tomatoes contain a lot less gram for gram, at 237mg per 100 grams. But make a sauce or a soup out of fresh tomatoes, or have them in a big salad, and you can easily be getting several hundred grams of tomatoes, and well over 700mg of potassium (a quantity that will clock you fewer than 100 calories, by the way).
Example: I recently wrote about my love affair with Glorious Foods’s super-healthy Skinnylicious soup range, and my addiction to their tomato-based Singapore Fling soup. While writing this article I calculated that this soup contains at least 800mg of potassium per carton.
Baked potatoes are another surprisingly rich source: a medium baked potato will generally pack at least 1,000mg, giving you well over a fifth of the potassium you need in a day (while a sweet potato will come in at around 700mg).
Did you know that the avocado is a potassium powerhouse, too? A medium one will give you nearly 500mg.
And let’s not forget the two foods that most health-savvy people think of when they think potassium: bananas (a medium one will give you 420mg) and coconut water (600mg per cup).
Finally, pulses are potassium-packed: for example, consume just 100 grams of cooked lentils (and that’s a mega-miniature serving) and you’ll have clocked another 370mg.
I put together this table so you can get inspiration for foods you might start including to ensure you meet your daily potassium quota.
But remember: we need a lot of potassium, so even if you regularly eat many of the foods on this list, you may not be getting enough.
You can be eating a whole foods diet and a load of fruit and veg and still running short.
The potassium content of each food is in the right column and except where otherwise stated, it’s per 100 grams.
|1 medium baked potato||1,000mg|
|Beet greens, raw||762mg|
|Coconut water, 1 cup||600mg|
|Tomato juice, 1 cup||556mg|
|1 medium banana||422mg|
|Chick peas, cooked||290mg|
|1 medium orange||237mg|
|Brown rice, cooked||223mg|
|1 medium apple||200mg|
Sources: USDA Nutrient Database and whfoods.com.
The take-home message here is essentially:
- as long as you make a point of including potassium-rich foods each day, getting enough can be easy
- every cell in your body will thank you for it
- only if your cells are getting enough potassium on any given day will you feel your best physically, mentally and emotionally
- if you consistently run short on potassium, this will be doing silent damage that is likely to result in big health challenges down the line, so the sooner you start getting enough, the better!
To potassium power! xo