A banana a day keeps the doctor away. Okay, that may not be the exact saying—but perhaps it should be.
We spend a lot of time worrying about whether we’re getting enough of nutrients like vitamin D, calcium, and even vitamin C, while potassium, which bananas are chock-full of, is often overlooked. That really shouldn’t be the case, considering less than two percent of Americans get the recommended 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day! This is such a problem that the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines called out potassium as a ‘nutrient of public health concern’ and food companies will soon have to include it on food labels.
Here’s everything you need to know about why you need potassium in the first place, where to get it, and what to do if you’re falling short.
Why Potassium Matters
Potassium is an essential mineral and electrolyte that helps regulate fluid levels in your body, communication between your nerves and muscles, and your blood vessel function. The mineral supports healthy blood pressure by easing tension in your blood vessel walls, and The American Heart Association credits it with helping to offset sodium’s harmful effects on blood pressure, because the more potassium you eat, the more sodium you excrete. One study published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows potassium to be especially important for controlling blood pressure when sodium intake is high (which it is for most Americans, who consume about 1,000 milligrams of excess sodium per day).
Plus, potassium interacts with hormones released during physical activity that keep the heart’s electrical impulses stable, so it’s essential for cardiovascular performance during exercise.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough
If you’re falling short on potassium—a state called ‘hypokalemia’—you may or may not notice symptoms, which typically include constipation, muscle weakness or spasms, fatigue, tingling or numbness, slightly elevated blood pressure, or feelings of skipped heart beats or abnormal heart rhythms. Though not common, a large enough drop in potassium levels can slow your heart rate enough to make you feel like you’re going to faint.
Low potassium level can also impact your exercise regime in several ways. First, thrown off fluid balance can leave you feeling fatigued and unable to work out as hard as you may like. Second, since potassium plays a role in muscle contractions, you may be plagued by aches, spasms, and cramps.
Long-term, insufficient dietary potassium has been shown to increase the risk of a number of illnesses and chronic diseases, such as strokes and osteoporosis. Furthermore, early animal research found that mice with low levels of the mineral had higher chances of developing heart disease. (Though it’s uncertain whether these animal findings apply to humans as well, the researchers suggest potassium may be a viable strategy for controlling vascular disease.)
How To Tell If You’re Low
A survey published by The Archives of Internal Medicine found the average dietary potassium intake in the U.S. to be about 2,300 milligrams per day for adult women and 3,100 milligrams per day for adult men—both of which are much lower than the recommended 4,700 milligrams a day.
To evaluate your potassium intake and levels, start by scheduling some one-on-one time with a dietitian to assess your specific food intake and how much potassium it provides, and consider having your doctor test your blood levels. (According to The National Institutes of Health, the normal range is 3.7 to 5.2 mmol/L.)
How To Pack In More Potassium
While bananas are a great source of potassium, with 422 milligrams in one medium fruit, there are plenty of other foods that provide hefty amounts of the mineral. For example, a medium baked potato actually blows bananas out of the water, providing 926 milligrams. Other potassium-rich foods include apricots, avocados, cantaloupes, dark leafy greens, oranges, tomatoes, seaweed, squash, sweet potatoes, peas, and prunes. With almost 600 milligrams in a cup, even yogurt packs potassium.
Try to incorporate potassium into each meal—it’s easier than you think! Start by adding a serving of dried fruit to your morning cereal or a mix of cottage cheese and yogurt. Then, be sure to build your lunchtime salad on a solid foundation of greens, and include other potassium-containing foods like citrus, tomatoes, and beets. For an afternoon snack, consider a smoothie made with Greek yogurt, banana, nut butter, and some greens. And for dinner, enjoy some baked potato along with salmon or a bean salad.
By eating a healthy, balanced diet packed with nutrient-foods, not only will you up your potassium intake, but you’ll bring in higher amounts of a whole slew of other vital nutrients, too—and that truly does a body good.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label To Table.