When considering what supplements to buy, often times we look at what’s popular rather than what we need. We see trends come and go, sometimes offering support, but usually we are disappointed in the lack of improvement to our health. Perhaps, if we are a little savvy, we stick to the basics: a multivitamin, a probiotic, an Omega-3, or a protein powder. We call these the basics because they contribute to the foundational needs we have for nutrients to make sure we don’t have any gaps. Additional help may even come from the minerals, where calcium, magnesium, iron, or zinc take center stage to offer targeted support. What if I told you, however, that perhaps the biggest gap in your diet is a nutrient that you probably know but haven’t ever really thought about? What if the gap is so large that, after decades of research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has listed it as THE “Nutrient of Public Health Concern” and believes that more than 98% of the public is NOT consuming enough? (1) What if the challenge of getting enough is made worse by over consuming other nutrients, further driving an overall imbalance in the body? If true, and it is, then addressing this need should be one the first priorities we have to bring back proper nutritional balance to our bodies health, but what is this Missing Link?
When you look at the average consumption of all nutrients across the country, Potassium routinely ranks as the one that we all fall short of. Even Magnesium consumption, which is so critical to our health and depleted in the diet, does not compare to the lack of Potassium needed to fulfill optimal functionality. Potassium is so crucial that we require more of it than all the other minerals COMBINED. If someone told you that you were not only NOT getting enough of something, but that you are likely getting only about half of what you need every day it would be alarming. Such is the case with Potassium, where the average consumption of 2650mg is dwarfed by the recommended Adequate Intake (AI) of 4700mg. With such a large gap missing from the diet, why isn’t Potassium at the top of the list for nutrition lectures and classes?
Potassium is essential for many functions in the body, but the main responsibilities it has are to contribute to overall mineral and bone status, function as a chief electrolyte mineral for hydration, and maintain balance with sodium in the blood to support a healthy heart, cardiovascular system, and even supports healthy blood pressure levels. (2) Potassium doesn’t work alone, as it functions in concert with the other big electrolyte minerals we need every day such as Sodium, Calcium, and Magnesium as a supporting mineral. Perhaps it is for this reason that we don’t notice how little we get and we don’t recognize the burden placed on our systems when it isn’t there, but this wasn’t always the case.
In a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, moderate grain and legume intake, and high quality dairy and animal products, it is not difficult to consume the proper amount of potassium every day. The problem comes in when dealing with the Standard American Diet (SAD) with it’s over processed food, and is especially made evident given the sodium consumption we all battle with every day. In fact, it is estimated that we consume about twice the amount of Sodium we should, while only getting about half the potassium we need. Furthermore, specialized diets like Keto or Paleo, which remove certain potassium rich foods to eliminate carbohydrates, can also present a highly restricted potassium intake. These challenges can often go unnoticed, but why?
Potassium is different from most other essential nutrients. While the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Calcium is well established at 1300mg per day, Potassium does not have an RDA. Potassium has an AI, which means that people can typically get by on less, but getting by does not confer optimal wellness nor does it provide the buffering capacity needed to balance excess Salt over time. This all sounds like it exists in the realm of theory, but much research has looked at this relationship and found that not only should we be limiting Salt in the diet, the limitation only goes as far as what’s needed to maintain the proper ratio between Sodium and Potassium. If we consume less Potassium than we should, then over consuming Salt becomes more problematic. If we consume the right amount, then Sodium consumption is complemented and we provide more hydration potential to our body.
When considering the average consumption of Sodium and Potassium in the diet, compared to the recommended amounts for each, it is estimated that less than 1/10th of 1/10th of a percent of the population consumes the right amounts (3). This is astounding, and given the fundamental role Potassium has in maintaining balance in the body, making sure we increase our Potassium should be of the upmost concern. Imagine the outrage if less than .0015% of people were consuming enough protein, or Vitamin C, and yet here we are. We should be looking for more potassium rich foods every day, and if we are going to supplement then make sure it is utilizing food forms for absorption and in the right balance with the other minerals. No nutrient works alone to bring health to the body, and Potassium is no different.
When looking to supplement with potassium, you want sodium and magnesium to be present also, but too often Potassium is a minor player in these types of formulas. Often times Potassium is sold as a tablet or a capsule, but these likely do not deliver a dose higher than 99mg per serving. This means you are paying a lot for very little support compared to the 1000’s of milligrams that likely are needed to bring you back into balance, not to mention all the artificial and synthetic compounds used as fillers in the tablet. Potassium supplements should mimic Real Food, not simply pretend to address the serious problems we have in our diet by sprinkling a small amount on top. Look for powdered supplements that deliver higher amounts of Potassium, and make sure that the Potassium content isn’t taking a back seat to unnecessary amounts of Sodium. Lastly, make sure that you are not sacrificing taste for empty calories, so look for powders that don’t deliver grams and grams of excess sugars.
It should be noted that those with Kidney Disease or on Dialysis should monitor ALL mineral consumption so as to not burden their impaired kidneys from functioning properly and as such should avoid supplementing Potassium. For otherwise healthy individuals, however, getting more Potassium in the diet can be a big step towards replenishing our overall mineral load, supporting overall Alkalinity, maintaining bone health, as well as supporting heart health for the long haul so that you can Find Your Greatness!
1. Potassium and Health
2. Potassium Health Sheet
3. Reducing the sodium-potassium ratio in the US diet: a challenge for public health