With nutritional guidelines focused on limiting the amount of salt we eat, it’s easy to forget about potassium. Potassium is an essential mineral, meaning it can’t be made in the body. It is needed to support cardiovascular health, protect against stroke, foster better bone health, and promote muscle mass. (1)(15)(27) More importantly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that getting enough potassium can reduce the risk of dying from any cause by as much as 20%. (30) The problem is, fewer than 2% of Americans get enough of this critical nutrient. (6)

Did you know?
Potassium is the seventh most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust and the seventh most abundant mineral in the human body. (4)

What is potassium?

Potassium is an essential mineral and electrolyte that is present in every tissue in your body. It helps maintain the proper amount of fluid inside your cells. About 98% of the potassium found in your body is inside your cells—and most of that is in your muscle cells. The remaining potassium can be found in your bones, liver, and red blood cells. (5)

Potassium is the counterpart to sodium, another electrolyte that regulates the volume of fluid in and outside your cells. A balance between the potassium and sodium in your body is critical, with the body needing more potassium compared to sodium. (13)

But, as important as this mineral is for good health, your body doesn’t produce potassium. That means you must get it from either food or supplements. The good news is that about 90% of the potassium you consume is absorbed and used to maintain this potassium/sodium balance. The bad news—because most of us don’t consume enough of this critical mineral, we can experience serious health problems as a result. (24)

Can you have too much potassium? While it’s possible, it’s rare to have chronically high amounts of potassium, a condition called hyperkalemia, since healthy kidneys maintain normal levels by removing excess potassium in the urine. However, people with kidney disease or other renal dysfunction may have trouble excreting excess potassium and can be at risk for hyperkalemia. (9)

Forms of potassium

There are many different forms of potassium. The main types of potassium found in fruits and vegetables include potassium phosphate, sulfate, and citrate. Types of potassium found in supplements include potassium gluconate, aspartate, chelate, phosphate, bicarbonate, citrate, chloride, and orotate. Potassium chloride is commonly prescribed to patients with potassium deficiency. It’s also the form found in salt substitutes. (23)

Did you know?
Potassium supplements typically don’t contain more than 99 mg per tablet or capsule due to concerns of hyperkalemia (high blood levels of potassium). (20)

People eating potassium rich foods

Getting potassium through a variety of whole foods is a good way to maintain healthy levels.

Best sources of potassium

While you can find potassium in supplements, focusing on including potassium-rich foods in your diet is a more effective way to boost your levels and keep your sodium/potassium ratio in balance. The best sources of potassium include:

Food sources of potassium include fruits, vegetables and legumes, and meats and dairy. (20)

Potassium’s health benefits

Maintaining adequate potassium levels has been shown to provide a range of health benefits. Below, we’ve outlined four of the most important.

Better blood pressure

It’s no secret that cutting back on sodium can help keep blood pressure in check. But getting enough potassium can also foster healthy blood pressure levels, which according to the World Health Organization is less than 120/80. (29) In one analysis of 15 clinical trials, researchers found that increasing levels of potassium in the diet or with supplements reduced systolic blood pressure (the top number) an average of 4.7 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 3.5 mmHg in healthy people. The results were even better in those with high blood pressure, with a 6.8 mmHg drop in systolic blood pressure and a 4.6 mmHg reduction in diastolic blood pressure. (3)

Improved cardiovascular health

Along with supporting healthy blood pressure levels, studies show that getting adequate amounts of potassium promotes overall cardiovascular health. One way it does this, say researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Birmingham VA Medical Center, is by discouraging the buildup of calcium deposits within the inside walls of your arteries. (10) This accumulation of calcium contributes to the development of atherosclerosis. In a review of 22 studies involving more than 1,600 people, those who ate the most potassium-rich food had a 24% lower risk of stroke compared to those who ate the least. (1)

Image of people walking and laughing in a forest

A potassium-rich diet should be part of a comprehensive plan to maintain bone health.

Increased bone density

Potassium may not be the first mineral you think of when it comes to healthy bones, but getting sufficient amounts can help prevent the loss of bone mineral density. Studies show that potassium may help prevent bone loss by reducing how much calcium is lost through urine. (16)(17) One study of 62 middle-aged women found that those who consumed the most potassium in their diet had greater total bone mass. (19) In another study involving 994 women, researchers noted that those eating a potassium-rich diet, along with other micronutrients, had greater bone mass in their lower back and hips. (18)

More muscle mass

A diet rich in potassium can also help preserve muscle mass in older people. Researchers at Tufts University found that among 384 people over the age of 65, those who ate the greatest number of potassium-rich fruits and vegetables had about 3.6 pounds of extra lean muscle mass than people eating half as many potassium-rich foods. (7)

Did you know?
Fatigue may be one of the first signs of potassium deficiency.

Potassium deficiency

Potassium deficiency, technically known as hypokalemia, can have wide-ranging effects on the body. These include:

  • Digestive problems (2)
  • Heart palpitations (21)(22)
  • Mood changes (12)(8)
  • Muscle aches and stiffness (28)
  • Respiratory problems (27)
  • Tingling and numbness in your extremities (25)
  • Weakness and fatigue (14)

Did you know?
Hypokalemia is diagnosed when potassium levels fall below 3.5 mmol/L. (11)

The bottom line

Potassium is one of the most critical minerals for good health. If you’re among the vast majority of people who don’t get enough, try adding one or two potassium-rich foods to every meal. It’s an easy and tasty way to make sure you’re getting the potassium you need to maintain optimal health.

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