Everybody’s heard of potassium, but few people seem to know just what it is or why we need it. For whatever reason, we’ve learned from a young age to associate potassium with bananas. Yet other than that single detail, the vital mineral mostly remains a mystery for the average person. It’s time we take a closer look at potassium and go over exactly why we need it and how to get more potassium naturally in our diets. And yes, there are plenty of other sources aside from bananas!
What is Potassium and What Does it Do?
Potassium is considered both a mineral and an electrolyte. In fact, it’s considered to be one of the most important electrolytes of all. But what exactly are electrolytes and what are they good for?
Electrolytes are minerals which help conduct electricity within the body. Aside from potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium also act as electrolytes. You may have heard that you should consume electrolytes for hydration during sports, or even to help recover from a bad hangover. The reason is that electrolytes help regulate the body’s water levels and the movement of water throughout the cells.
Potassium and sodium work together as a team to make up what are known as Sodium-Potassium Pumps. In addition to regulating fluids, these pumps are vital for producing electricity that’s necessary for all sorts of basic functions, like nerve function and the proper functioning of our muscles.
Potassium is even involved in other types of pumps in the body that are vital for things like pH regulation and digestion. These various generators even control the transport of calcium throughout the body and they help us better absorb protein. In fact, around a 60% of all the energy we intake from our food is used to fuel these pumps. (1)
The Sodium-Potassium Pumps, as the name suggests, require both sodium and potassium to function, yet sodium is so often demonized in the mainstream health media. A lot of this is misinformation, as there’s often little distinction made between high quality Himalayan sea salt and basic table salt. Regardless, the body is much better at retaining sodium than it is potassium. That’s why it’s so important to make sure we’re getting adequate amounts potassium for our bodies to function at full potential.
The tricky thing with potassium is that the daily recommended dosage is really high compared to other minerals. With the recommended dosage being at least 4,700mg a day, it’s incredibly difficult to get that full amount from a single meal.
Also, since it’s best to balance out potassium with the other vital minerals, we really want to get it from natural sources and not through supplements. But with little public knowledge on potassium-rich foods other than bananas, it’s about time we educate ourselves on how to get more potassium from other natural sources. If we don’t, we may end up experiencing some of the nasty side effects associated with potassium deficiency.
Potassium Deficiency Symptoms
Potassium deficiency can be hard to detect through a blood test, because potassium resides inside the cells and not outside. Therefore, if you’re experiencing one or more of the symptoms below, you should analyze your diet to determine whether it might be caused by potassium deficiency. (And of course, also consult with a professional)
- Nerve problems
- High blood pressure
- Muscle cramps
- Sugar cravings
- Muscle weakness
Potential Causes of Potassium Deficiency (Other Than not Eating Enough)
There are also a number of reasons people might be suffering from a potassium deficiency, other than simply not eating enough. Certain habits, or even stress, can greatly reduce the amount of potassium in the body. Here are a few things which may lead to a deficiency:
- Stress and anxiety
- Eating too much sugar
- Ketogenic diets – low carb diets can lead to both sodium and potassium deficiencies
- Taking blood pressure medication
- High proteins diet without enough vegetables
Why You Don’t Want Too Much
Just as there are plenty of drawbacks to a potassium deficiency, there are also a number of symptoms related to having too much potassium in your system. This is a state known as hyperkalemia.
Oddly enough, the things you might experience from hyperkalemia are pretty similar to what you might go through during hypokalemia, or potassium deficiency. (2) You might also experience things like vomiting or diarrhea.
As mentioned, the daily recommended amount is quite high, at 4,700mg – 6,000mg daily. That’s roughly equivalent to around 10 cups of salad! Therefore, it’s unlikely you’ll be getting too much potassium through your diet alone. But if you’re ingesting supplements or drinking too much cream of tartar mixed with water (see more below), you may be at risk of hyperkalemia.
How to Get More Potassium: The Best Natural Sources
You should focus on getting your potassium from natural sources. This ensures that you’re also getting other vital nutrients which potassium cooperates with for important bodily functions. Vegetarians can rejoice, as the best potassium sources come from plants. First, let’s get bananas, the most famous (but not the best) source of potassium out of the way.
Bananas, it turns out, are not actually that great of a potassium source – they’re just OK. An average medium-sized banana only contains about 300 – 400mg of potassium. That means that you’d need to eat 12 to 15 bananas to meet the recommended daily dosage of around 5,000mg of potassium!
I love bananas, but even after eating 3 or 4, I tend to feel full and bloated for the rest of the day. And if you’re someone who’s trying to avoid too much fructose in your diet, you certainly don’t want to be going through all those bananas.
However, there’s nothing wrong with a few bananas a day, combined with other more efficient potassium sources. Let’s learn more about what they are.
White and Black Beans
White beans are one of the most abundant natural sources of potassium out there. One cup of cooked white beans contains just over 1,000mg of potassium. It should be noted, though, that the serving size is usually listed as ½ cup, thus bringing white beans down to 500mg in most lists. (3)
As an added benefit, these beans are also a good source of magnesium and fiber.
Black beans are also great sources of potassium, with half a cup of boiled beans containing around 400mg. And like white beans, they’re also rich in other nutrients like protein and fiber.
Avocados contain about 700mg of potassium per cup, or around 900mg for an entire medium-sized avocado. That’s over double the amount found in a banana! Or, if you look at the ratio of potassium per calorie, three times as much! The green fruit is also high in healthy fats and low in carbs. (4)
People on high-fat diets like the ketogenic diet tend to be at risk of potassium deficiency, because the state of ketosis also expels a lot of potassium from the body. That’s why it’s important to consume lots of avocados and other dark leafy greens while on these types of diets.
One cup of boiled spinach contains about 840mg of potassium. While raw spinach is certainly good for you in many ways, the raw leaves only contain 167mg of potassium per cup. Cooked spinach is ideal for those watching their potassium intake because the food becomes so compact and easy to eat. (5)
Sweet potatoes contain around 450 mg of potassium per cup. They’re also healthier overall than white potatoes. And sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene and a great source of vitamin A.
Fruit lovers might be disappointed to learn that bananas don’t live up to the hype when it comes to potassium content. Grapefruits, at least, contain around the same amount as a banana, or 320mg per entire fruit. And they won’t leave you feeling as full!
Mushrooms are also good potassium sources. However, there are so many varieties of mushrooms out there, not to mention different ways to prepare them all, thus making it hard to list the exact potassium amounts for each type. Generally speaking, though, shiitake and crimini mushrooms are among the best sources. (6)
One of the best ways to get your potassium is to drink it. One cup of coconut water generally contains around 600mg of potassium for under 50 calories. And they’re also good sources of sodium, another vital mineral for hydration and nerve function.
This is a great alternative to those sugary, chemical-laden sports drinks that have been on the market for so long. Even if you don’t live in a tropical climate where fresh coconuts are readily available, coconut water products are becoming increasingly popular these days.
*Other good potassium sources include squash, pomegranate, dried apricots, salmon and carrots.
Potassium Supplement Alternatives
There are much better alternatives out there to potassium supplements. For those wondering how to get more potassium in their daily lives, the best solutions often come in liquid form.
Above, we went over the benefits of drinking coconut water, which is also a great sodium source.
There are plenty of coconut water products on the market these days, but you might want to look at Harmless Coconut Water. Some reviewers describe it as the closest thing to drinking straight from the coconut. It’s pricey, though, so you may also want to research other products if you’re on a budget.
Cream of Tartar
Cream of tartar is a byproduct of the winemaking process and is often used in cooking. Actually, the alternative name for cream of tartar is ‘Potassium bitartrate.‘ To get an extra potassium boost, simply mix 1 teaspoon with a glass of water and just drink it as is. That’s 495 mg of potassium for only 8 calories!
However, cream of tartar is such an efficient and easy-to-consume potassium source that it’s important to not drink too much. Otherwise, you may experience some of the symptoms of hyperkalemia, or potassium overload.
There are also a number healthy electrolyte products on the market these days that aren’t sweet fruit drinks like Gatorade. I have yet to try this myself, but I’m intrigued by Dr. Berg’s Electrolyte Powder which contains 1,000mg of potassium per serving. And unlike a typical “sports drink,” there’s no added sugar!
Potassium Raw Juice Recipe
Another great way to boost your potassium intake is through fresh juices. Here’s a recipe from my book Juicing Recipes: 50 Tasty Juice Recipes for Detox, Weight Loss and Vitality.
- 3 fresh carrots, peeled & chopped
- 2 sweet potatoes, peeled & chopped
- 3 cups of fresh baby spinach, stem removed & chopped
- 1 lemon, peeled
Put it all in a juicer, and there you go! If you drink the whole amount (2 servings) this juice recipe should provide roughly 1,900 mg of potassium. Of course, things vary depending on the size of the vegetables you’re using, as juicing is not an exact science.
While still less than half the daily recommended amount, drinking a high-potassium juice in addition to a nutritious diet full of other potassium-rich foods can make getting the recommended amount a lot easier. This juice is also high in beta-carotene and vitamin C.
Hopefully you’ve learned some new information about just how important potassium is for all living things, and also new ways to integrate potassium-rich foods or drinks into your diet. While there’s no doubt that the banana industry is very pleased that people automatically picture the yellow fruit when thinking of potassium, the truth is that there are plenty of better sources out there. But there’s no reason you should give up eating bananas, either. Just eat plenty of vegetables and fruits every day and you can’t go wrong. Remember, food is the best medicine!