The average American eats a diet that is deficient in potassium; worse than that, our habits often include things that deplete our system of its potassium stores.
Water pills (diuretics) draw potassium from your system, as do medicines for asthma and emphysema – like bronchodilators, steroids or theophylline. Anti-biotics, especially the aminoglycosides – play havoc with your potassium levels. The use of insulin also depletes your system of potassium. As you would probably guess, anorexia and bulimia drain you of potassium. Alcoholism drains your potassium. Even if you are not alcoholic, liquor plays havoc with your potassium levels if you overdo it.
Women of all races and African Americans are at higher risk for low potassium levels, a disorder called hypokalemia.
Why should we care? How important is potassium, anyway? Well, pretty darned important, actually. It’s crucial in regulating the fluid levels of your body, in keeping the electrolyte balance in the cells of your body, it regulates blood pressure and heart functioning, keeps your nervous system strong, helps your muscles contract properly. It aids with the metabolic process, releasing energy from your fat, carbohydrates and proteins, and then aids in the waste removal process of your digestive system. It helps with the growth and health of your cells. Plus, it supports your cognitive functions by assisting in the delivery of oxygen to your brain. As we get older, with sustained potassium deficiency, we might notice more and more difficulty digesting, problems with high blood pressure, frayed nerves, muscle spasms. This is all preventable through a few simple changes to your diet.
As we all know already, a diet filled with processed foods, one high in sodium, sugars and chemicals, is never going to provide your body with the amount of potassium you need. You might even be deficient already without knowing it. What are the symptoms?
They include weakness, tiredness, nausea or vomiting. Abdominal cramping and bloating are common, as is constipation. Fainting or dizziness — light-headedness when you stand up quickly — which is caused by the low blood pressure usually accompanying low potassium levels. Many of us have also experienced those cramps in our arm or leg muscles – or sometimes in our feet or toes – which are severe enough to make it impossible to move your arm or leg – almost like paralysis.
Another symptom is heart palpitations – irregular heartbeat. You may feel very thirsty a lot, or pass large amounts of urine. There are also signs of abnormal psychological behaviors, depression, confusion, or more serious – psychosis, delirium or hallucinations. I was alerted to a problem with my potassium levels because of what my grandmother used to call a Charley Horse — which apparently is a North American colloquialism for the muscle spasms that sometimes occur in legs – calf muscles frequently. I got them all the time. I also had some arrhythmia problems — irregular heartbeats — which scared me, and made me pay more attention to the possibility of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
It’s very difficult to get the appropriate amount of potassium from supplements.
We need a lot – 4700 milligrams – so the importance of your dietary choices is key here.
Huffington Post has a good article up about food sources high in potassium — most of us think about the magical banana, which is a good source with 422 milligrams — but there are plenty of others:
A plain, baked potato has 751 milligrams. A sweet potato has 542 milligrams. Leafy greens are a great source of potassium – swiss chard has 961 milligrams, spinach has 839 and something I’d never heard of — beet greens — has a whopping 1300 milligrams. I looked up beet greens which, as you probably guessed, are the green tops of fresh beets, and found a lot of recipes for them. One of the reasons I like writing this blog is that I learn a lot.
Beans are amazing. In addition to being a great source of vegetable protein, they pack a lot of potassium. White beans, for instance, has 1189 milligrams a cup — so two cups of cooked white beans would give you about half of what you need for a daily potassium requirement. Lima beans, 707 miligrams a cup. Edamame, 970 mg. per cup. And lentils are 731 milligrams a cup. Clearly, beans are a great source for this important nutrient.
Winter squash offers a lot potassium. We’re coming up on a great season for a variety of squash – butternut squash, 582 mg./cup, acorn squash, 896 mg./cup, and one of my favorites, spaghetti squash, which offers only 181 mg/cup but since it’s only 42 calories/cup, you could eat 2 or 3 cups – and get plenty. Spaghetti squash is easy to cook, and is a great substitute for actual spaghetti, which is much higher in calories and carbs w/o much by way of nutrition. Squash recipes offer a variety of uses, from soup, to side dishes, to main courses.
Dried fruits can supply a good bit of potassium. Dates are a great source – 167 mg. each. Raisins, 322 for 1/5 oz. apricots 257 1/4 c. Fresh fruits are good, too. A cup of cantaloupe provides about 716 mg, papaya provides about 264 mg/cup.
Yogurt gives us 531 mg. for 8 oz — but be sure that you are eating real yogurt. By that, I mean plain (and for safety purposes, make it organic to be sure you aren’t getting antibiotics or bovine hormones). You do NOT want to eat yogurt with sugar. Why? Because the active acidophilus and healthy bacteria of yogurt — the reason most people EAT yogurt — are killed by sugar. Put sugar in yogurt, and you might as well be eating pudding.
Avocados, have a lot of potassium – 975 mg. each. Try including them into your diet in a variety of ways — there’s more to avocado than guacamole.
Tomatoes are high in potassium; and tomato sauce provides 800 mg. cup — but here too, stay away from the pre-made sauces, which are filled with sugars, preservatives and lots of other unnecessary and unhealthy ingredients. Instead, use either fresh tomatoes, or buy yourself a big can of whole tomatoes – as an added side benefit, these cans of tomatoes are usually cheaper than those already-made tomato sauces. You can make what my Italian mother-in-law used to call marinade, which is just the whole tomatoes, either minced (cut the tomatoes up by hand) or liquified in a blender and put into a sauce pan with a little olive oil (ALWAYS 100% virgin – it’s a little more expensive but much healthier), some oregano and basil. The pre-made sauces have tons of salt, and you don’t want that – so cook this sauce and add a small amount of salt when it is finished. You’ll be surprised how much less you will need.
You can make your own version of tomato sauce which is MUCH more flavorful homemade, and healthier, with that can of whole tomatoes and two small cans of concentrated tomato paste, a little oregano and a slow simmer (crockpots are great for this too!) — you’ll end up with about double what you would get from a jar of pre-made tomato sauce – but yours will be without all the unwanted garbage. It freezes well, if you want to double the batch and have it for future cooking. Puree the whole tomatoes and heat them with basil and oregano; add some olive oil to a frying pan and add the tomato paste. Let the paste fry until it becomes sweet — it’s kind of amazing how the flavor changes naturally. Once it becomes sweet, add the paste to the whole tomato sauce, and cook for about an hour. You can add meat if you want — some sauteed ground meat, for instance, or meatballs. (If anybody wants a great meatball recipe, just ask. My mother-in-law taught me how to make her meatballs, and they are great.)
Fish is a good choice for potassium — halibut 449 for 3 oz. Be careful with fish, however; and be sure that you are buying the best and healthiest you can — our waters have been so polluted that knowing where the fish were caught is crucial to your own health. Methyl-mercury contamination in big fish, such as tuna, is also a crucial consideration — stay away from larger fish as a regular part of your diet. Watch out for GMO fish, too — more and more of our agri-business foods are frankenfoods.
Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diets are pretty good for potassium – with their reliance on spinach, yogurt, dates, lentils, tomatoes. Arming yourself with some good Middle Eastern recipes for these ingredients would be a helpful and tasty way to ensure the right amount of potassium in your diet.
Bottom line, there are so many choices for ways to get the appropriate amount of potassium into your diet, and so many health benefits for doing so, you should start today to increase your intake, improve your diet, and take control of your health!