Potassium is a chemical element with atomic number 19 and the symbol K. In the body, potassium is one of the minerals and electrolytes essential for the the normal functioning of all cells. It helps ensure the proper function of the muscles and nerves, including those that control your heartbeat and breathing.
A low potassium level can lead to fatigue, weakness and constipation. This deficiency can then escalate to paralysis, respiratory failure and painful gut obstruction.
Diets rich in potassium can help control blood pressure and have been linked to a lower chance of having a stroke. But diets that have too much of something also tend to be lower in other healthful nutrients, and in the case of potassium-rich diets, sodium intake may be lower, which may contribute to the observed benefit in lowering the blood pressure.
So if potassium is such an essential mineral, is it necessary to take a potassium supplement?
Potassium is better obtained from the food that we eat, and our bodies use the potassium it needs. The extra potassium that the body does not need is removed from the blood by the kidneys.
If the body cannot remove the excess potassium through the urine because of other health problems that affect the function of the kidneys, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart failure, then potassium levels can increase to alarming levels, which can cause dangerous abnormal heart rhythms and even cause cardiac arrest and death.
For this reason, potassium supplements that are available only come in small doses and should only be used if they are prescribed by your doctor.
According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology, adequate intake of potassium for Filipino adults is 2,000 mg a day, taken mostly from fruits and vegetables.
Current diets, however, do not meet the recommendation of at least five servings of vegetables and fruits a day. (A serving of vegetables is one cup of raw leafy vegetables or 1/2 cup raw non-leafy vegetables, or 1/2 cup cooked leafy or non-leafy vegetables. A serving of fruit is about 1/2 cup.)
It has just become more convenient to eat fast food or prepackaged foods. Some fruits and vegetables can also sometimes be more expensive, especially during typhoon season.
Fruits such as bananas are often pushed as a good source of potassium, but other fruits and vegetables also contain this often-neglected nutrient.
Foods high in potassium:
2. Tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato juice
5. Green leafy vegetables — spinach, bok choy
10. Oranges and orange juice
13. Buko/young coconut
15. Dried fruit — prunes, raisins
16. Milk (250 ml) — 380 mg
Although it is important for people with kidney disease to not overdo potassium, they shouldn’t go without it either. Those with severe kidney disease or on dialysis should still get some potassium in the diet, about 1000 mg per day.
The number of servings is also important. Too much of a low-potassium food makes it a high-potassium food. The recommended serving of low-potassium foods is about half a cup.
Foods low in potassium:
1. Salmon (3 oz.) — 300 mg
2. Canned tuna (3 oz.) — 200 mg
3. Asparagus (6 spears) — 200 mg
4. Broccoli (half-cup) — 200 mg
5. Carrots (half-cup cooked) — 200 mg
6. Corn (half an ear) — 200 mg
7. Zucchini (half-cup) — 200 mg
8. Apple (tennis-ball size) — 200 mg
9. Grapes (half cup) —100 mg
10. Pineapple (half cup) — 100 mg
Caution should also be used when using salt substitutes since the potassium content can be high.
Potassium levels can also be affected by certain medications such as diuretics (hydrochlorothiazide, furosemide) which tend to lower potassium levels, while other medications for blood pressure (enalapril, lisinopril, ramipril, perindopril, losartan, candesartan, irbesartan) have the opposite effect and can raise potassium levels. So can common painkillers such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Ask your doctor if your potassium levels need to be monitored.
In general, healthy potassium levels can be maintained with a balanced diet and eating the recommended number of servings for fruits and vegetables.
Never take potassium supplements without a doctor’s prescription, and always consult with your doctor to find out the amount of potassium that’s right for you.