When it comes to dietary minerals, calcium gets most of the attractive glory. Consider it the Brad Pitt of nutrition. Sodium, with its unhealthy, high-blood-pressure-inducing, bad-boy image is the Charlie Sheen. But what about potassium? Often misunderstood, neglected and closely related to sodium, it’s the Emilio Estevez (Sheen’s brother) of essential minerals.
What are the best sources of potassium and why is this dietary mineral so important?
Potassium plays several critical roles, including:
Regulating cell function
Muscle contraction (including the heart)
Transmitting nerve impulses
Metabolizing proteins and carbohydrates
Regulating blood pressure
Most people know that a diet high in processed foods is often loaded with sodium, which can cause high blood pressure. But many people don’t realize that it’s possible to lower blood pressure by reducing sodium intake and increasing another electrolyte salt: potassium.
Recent research has found that despite only 20 to 30 percent of Westerners having optimal blood pressure, a diet higher in potassium and lower in common table salt can regulate blood pressure levels.
You’ll want to shoot for about 4,000 milligrams of potassium per day if you’re concerned about blood pressure and electrolyte balance.
Here are some of the top sources of potassium:
Tomato paste and other tomato products: According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, tomato products, rich in the free-radical compounds, lycopene and Vitamin C, have the highest potassium content, checking in at a whopping 2,657 mg per cup. Chances are, you’re not going to eat a whole cup of tomato paste in one sitting, but eat it frequently (great for a spread on crackers and cheese), and you’ll reap the benefits of a loaded source of potassium in your diet.
Orange juice (unsweetened): Although not the best choice for people concerned with their blood sugar levels, orange juice does have over 1,400 milligrams of potassium in a six ounce serving. By comparison one whole orange has less than one-tenth the amount of potassium, but by all means, do not skip out on eating whole foods like oranges. Eat some protein and natural fat to counteract the blood sugar spike that may occur when drinking orange juice.
Beets: One cup of boiled, cooked beets has over 1,300 milligrams of potassium. Ancient Romans used beets as a cure for constipation. Your digestive tract depends on muscular movements to pass food through and we all know by now that potassium helps with muscular function.
Beans: Beans come in many varieties but nearly all contain adequate amounts of potassium. One cup of white beans has nearly 1,200 milligrams of potassium. Make a salad with some beans and beets and you already have more than half your recommended daily intake of potassium.
Dates: Like orange juice, dates are relatively high in sugar compared to other fruits, so take caution. But one cup of dates (Noor variety) has 1,168 milligrams of potassium.
Where are bananas on the list?
It’s common perception that bananas contain lots of potassium but, on average, one banana contains just 350 milligrams of potassium. The banana’s close relative, the plantain, has more potassium. One medium raw plantain has nearly 900 milligrams of potassium. There are other fruits that have even higher levels of potassium. Dried apricots contain nearly 2,000 milligrams; dried figs contain 1,010 milligrams; avocados have 400 milligrams. In general, dried fruits contain lots potassium.
What are other good sources of potassium?
If you eat a balanced diet rich in whole food sources of nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit, along with a moderate amount of humanely-raised animal protein, you should have no problem getting enough potassium in your diet.
Soybeans, almonds, pistachios, parsley, bran and potatoes are also on the potassium A-list.
Those with compromised kidneys, however, need to be avoid eating too much potassium because diseased kidneys cannot remove excess potassium from the body and, according to the National Institutes for Health, this excess can affect the heart rhythm.
Know of any other good sources of potassium or have any advice on why potassium is important, let us know below.
Judd Handler is a health writer and can be reached at CoachJudd@gmail.com.