The Food and Drug Administration recently revised nutrition fact labels to reflect America’s changing dietary habits. One of the changes they made was to add potassium to the list of nutrients that manufacturers display on their labels.
Why potassium? These changes reflect the fact that some people aren’t getting enough of this important mineral and one that’s critical for survival and good health. Obviously, the FDA thinks you should know how much potassium you’re getting from the foods you buy and eat – and that’s a step in the right direction. More awareness means you can take steps to supply your body’s need for potassium.
Dietary Potassium and Why You Need It
Like sodium, potassium is an electrolyte, a mineral that carries a charge. Potassium is found mainly inside cells and is essential for fluid balance and for maintaining a healthy pH. The term pH refers to the acid-base, balance within your body – but potassium does so much more. It directly impacts the functions of your tissues and organs.
You need potassium for a healthy heart and nervous system since it’s involved in regulating your heartbeat, in the conduction of nerve impulses, and for muscle contractions. Plus, potassium is involved in numerous chemical reactions that help you stay alive.
All in all, you need enough dietary potassium to keep your body in balance. Plus, unlike sodium, your body doesn’t hold onto it easily and you have to keep replenishing it. Some research even suggests that adding more potassium to your diet can lower your risk for health problems such as these:
Dietary Potassium: High Blood Pressure
If you have borderline high blood pressure, your doctor might recommend eating a banana every day. Good suggestion! Some studies show that increasing the amount of potassium in your diet can lower your blood pressure. In fact, research shows potassium can reduce systolic blood pressure (the upper number) by as much as 8 points.
Both potassium chloride and potassium citrate, the kind found in fruits and vegetables, lowers blood pressure. That means you can get the benefits through diet without the need to take supplements. Plus, a diet high in potassium helps to compensate for the negative impact of too much sodium by helping your body excrete it.
Dietary Potassium: Stroke
Several studies show that women who consume adequate potassium in their diet have a lower risk of the most common type of stroke called an ischemic stroke. That’s important since stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. What’s less clear is whether getting MORE potassium in your diet, beyond the amount you need to prevent a deficiency, reduces the risk.
One way potassium may decrease the risk is through its blood-pressure lowering effect. It may also improve the way blood vessels in the brain function, allowing them to get better oxygen delivery.
Dietary Potassium: Bone Loss
You probably think of calcium as being the most important mineral for bone health – but it’s not the only one. Magnesium and potassium are on the list of bone-friendly minerals too. Some studies show that women who eat a diet high in potassium have a lower risk of osteoporosis.
Your bones are constantly being resorbed, or broken down, and rebuilt. If this didn’t happen, a bone fracture couldn’t heal. With osteoporosis, the balance between normal bone breakdown and resorption is unbalanced and breakdown exceeds new bone formation.
Research shows that a diet high in potassium may restore balance and help prevent osteoporosis. Combine whole food sources of potassium with regular high-impact exercise and resistance training to help keep your bones healthy as you age and throughout your life
Dietary Potassium: Heart Disease
Heart disease is still the number one killer of both men and women. Fortunately, studies have linked diets high in potassium with a lower risk of heart disease. One way potassium reduces the risk of heart disease is by reducing blood pressure. Potassium also helps regulate your heartbeat and may lower the risk of serious arrhythmias, or irregularities in heart rhythm. Plus, potassium helps to mitigate some of the negative effects of a high-sodium diet. Nevertheless, you should still be aware of your sodium intake.
Sources of Dietary Potassium
You might wonder why potassium deficiency is becoming more common. It could stem from the fact that more people are eating processed and packaged foods than ever before. Processing removes some of the minerals from food. After the fact, some of these minerals are added back in through a process called enrichment. Potassium isn’t one of them. So, if your “go-to” meal is something from a package, you may not be getting the potassium you need for optimal health.
So, don’t depend on packaged foods to help you meet your body’s potassium requirements. The best natural sources of potassium are fruits and vegetables. The American Heart Association recommends adults get around 4,700 milligrams of potassium daily. If you’re eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day you’ll have no problems meeting this requirement. So, eat the rainbow and know you’re doing good things for your heart, blood vessels, and bones. Other good sources of potassium are dairy food, such as yogurt, and nuts.
Can You Get Too Much Potassium?
As long as you have healthy kidneys, your body excretes excess potassium and eating dietary potassium doesn’t pose a risk. But if you have kidney disease or take certain medications, including some blood pressure medications, that cause your body to hold on to potassium, you shouldn’t consume lots of potassium without a doctor’s consent. It’s best to get potassium from whole food sources rather than from a potassium supplement. Don’t forget that salt substitutes contain potassium chloride and you shouldn’t use those if you’re taking certain medications or have unhealthy kidneys.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why the new nutritional fact labels contain potassium and the health problems getting enough of it may prevent. So, make sure you’re nourishing your body with a whole food diet.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label”
Harvard Health. “Potassium Lowers Blood Pressure”
EUFIC. “Salt, potassium and the control of blood pressure”
Medscape Multispecialty. “Importance of Potassium in Cardiovascular Disease”
Osteoporos Int. 2009 Feb;20(2):335-40. doi: 10.1007/s00198-008-0666-3. Epub 2008 Jun 25.
Science Daily. “Potassium salts aid bone health, limit osteoporosis risk, new research finds”
Harvard Health Publications. “Getting more potassium and less salt may cut heart attack, stroke risk”
American Heart Association. “Potassium and High Blood Pressure”
Medline Plus. “Potassium in Diet”
Stroke. 2001; 32: 1473-1480 doi: 10.1161/01.STR.32.7.1473.
Related Articles By Cathe: