Potassium assists the body with a number of different functions. Its main functions are to:
- Help maintain the right balance of fluid within our cells
- Help with the body’s electrochemical conduction system
Yup, that's right. The body has its own form of an electrical system. The fact that you are able to process this text, that you are able to move your muscles, and that your heart is beating this very moment has to do with the body’s electrical conduction system. And potassium is important for this system to function properly. It’s also important for maintaining kidney health and keeping your blood pressure within a normal range.
Here’s what’s really interesting though: when we sweat, there’s very little potassium in that sweat. It’s as if the body knows it needs to preserve potassium, and so it has adapted accordingly. The kidneys are very important for maintaining the right balance of potassium within the body. In fact, we are more likely to excrete potassium via our urine than through our sweat. This begs the question: if we don’t lose much through our sweat, do you really need to worry about your potassium levels?
One issue with using blood tests as the only measure is that potassium is usually sitting within our body’s cells and not in the bloodstream. When you go in for a blood test, the results are only going to tell you how much potassium is floating around in your bloodstream. But this isn’t always helpful because we really need to know how much potassium is in your cells and tissues. If you are concerned about having low potassium levels, you may want to ask your doctor about other tests that may be more accurate to help determine your potassium status. For now, let’s assume that you do in fact need to increase your potassium intake. In this case, consuming 4,700 mg of potassium each day should do the trick.
Before I discuss foods that are high in potassium and low in carbohydrates, I should mention that potassium is kind of amazing in that it can help offset the damage from consuming too much sodium. If you tend to eat a lot of salty foods, it may help to consume those foods that are rich in potassium. But if someone has a pre-existing health condition like kidney disease or a history of heart attack or stroke, they have to be careful here. Too much potassium can be a problem for these folks because it can interfere with some of their prescribed medications. But for those with no pre-existing health conditions, eating lots of potassium-rich foods will likely not cause any problems. The kidneys help regulate potassium levels in the body and will just excrete any excess.
What about potassium supplements? You won’t see many of these because according to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), supplements that contain more than 99 milligrams of potassium chloride are not safe. Researchers have shown that taking supplements with more than 99 mg of potassium chloride has been associated with damage to the small intestine. Yet you won’t see a warning label on dietary supplements containing more than 99 mg potassium–the FDA has yet to require this.
The best way to increase your potassium status is to consume potassium-rich foods. Some lower-carbohydrate options (outside of fish & algae) include:
- leafy green vegetables like spinach and broccoli
The added benefit of course is that most of these foods are high in other nutrients, too! And unless your doctor wants you to begin using a potassium supplement, I would stay away.