In 2018 you’ll see a new nutrient listed on your food label, the element potassium. Potassium is known to chemists by its symbol : K (not to be confused with Vitamin K which is something different.) Potassium is one of those weird elements with a symbol that doesn’t reflect its name in English. The name comes from the word potash because it is found in plant ashes. The Latin name for plant ashes is Kalium.
Potassium is vital to life. It regulates heart beat and muscle function. Thus, low potassium can cause muscle cramps, irregular heart beat, and fainting. Bruising and vein problems could be a symptom of low potassium. There are all sorts of reasons for these symptoms, of course, but your body struggling for potassium doesn’t need to be one of them. Potassium is also important for bone health.
On the periodic table potassium sits right below sodium. It’s sodium’s big sister and acts much like sodium in the body in that it is an electrolyte. However, we need much more potassium than sodium in our diets. We need 4,700 mg each day. You need less than half that amount of sodium. Too much sodium with too little potassium creates hypertension aka high blood pressure.
Before high-salt processed foods came about, getting more dietary potassium than sodium was easy. Potassium is an important mineral for plants. It is the K in the NPK ratio shown on fertilizer boxes. (The other letters are for nitrogen and phosphorus.) Plants need potassium and contain a lot of it. Therefore, a high plant diet provides enough potassium. Plants rich in potassium are found across the globe. You can find all sorts of lists of high potassium foods but here are some I’ll eat:
potatoes (K is much lower in potato chips by the way. Fries are a little better but oh, the grease and salt!)
seaweed (I admit–I don’t much like this.)
It should be easy to get potassium so what’s the problem?
First of all, we need a lot so if you skimp on the vegetables and fruit, you might be lacking.
Second, it’s water soluble and can be flushed out with too much liquid–particularly alcohol. There is a phrase among health care professionals–“with booze, you loose.”
Additionally, salt (more specifically the sodium in salt) can displace it and cause more of it to be excreted. However, if you get enough potassium, salt is less dangerous to your health. Unfortunately, high salt foods will drive the potassium out of your system. It’s a tricky balance that can be thrown off with high sodium dishes. As the saying goes, the relationship is complicated.
So why isn’t potassium in more supplements? Can’t I get it from those? Supplements should be taken only with a doctor’s advice. Too much potassium is dangerous. Some people should not consume a lot of potassium. People with kidney or other health problems need to be on low potassium diets. Drugs can change potassium levels even if the drugs do not contain potassium. Medical professionals monitor patients who take potassium supplements. For these patients, the new label can serve as a warning on what to avoid. Additionally–it’s easier for your body to regulate your potassium balance if you get it from foods throughout the day rather than taking a walloping dose all at once.
Worried about potassium? Most people shouldn’t be. Watch those labels and eat the right foods. It will be O.K.