The Forgotten Bone Nutrients: Potassium

Potassium is an essential mineral and electrolyte which is critically important to a number of body functions. First, potassium works with sodium and other electrolytes to transmit nerve impulses including those needed for muscle contraction and heart function. A number of enzymes also rely on potassium, including those responsible for energy production and carbohydrate metabolism. If this wasn’t enough, potassium intake has also been linked to your bone density!

How Much Potassium Do You Need?

Despite the importance of potassium, studies indicate that the typical western diet just doesn’t cut it. It has been reported that as few as 2% of the US population is consuming enough potassium! With an average daily intake of only 2,300 – 3,100 mg each day, we certainly have some work to do!

The RDA of potassium for both men and women is 4,700 mg each day. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine has not set a tolerable “upper limit” for potassium since high potassium intake has not been shown to lead to side effects in healthy individuals. If you have kidney disease, take potassium-sparing diuretics, or have a condition known as hypoaldosteronism, you should discuss potassium intake with your medical provider as you may be at risk of retaining too much potassium.

What Causes Low Potassium Levels?

  • Not consuming enough potassium through your diet
  • Medications including diuretics and laxatives
  • Alcoholism
  • Gastrointestinal illness (nausea and vomiting)
  • Eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia
  • Low magnesium levels
  • Heart failure
  • Consuming large amounts of black licorice

Potassium Deficiency Is Associated With These Health Conditions

  • Osteoporosis
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Increased risk of kidney stones
  • Hypertension
  • Muscle weakness and cramping
  • Heart arrhythmias

Potassium And Your Bones

The nutrition world has certainly given potassium a considerable amount of attention over the years—and for good reason! Low potassium intake is associated with plenty of health conditions that we would all like to avoid. Among them is osteoporosis. Researchers have revealed a connection between potassium intake and bone density, but the details about this relationship are not completely understood.

Here’s what we know so far. Potassium is found in fruits and vegetables, which also tend to have precursors to bicarbonate which makes them alkaline (the opposite of acidic). The typical Western diet is quite acidic since it is rich in fish, meats, and cheese. This acidity needs to be neutralized, and the body achieves this through the lungs, kidneys, and bones.

There is still debate regarding how involved your bones truly are in this process. It appears that in response to increased acidity, your bones may release alkaline calcium salts to neutralize the acidity back to normal levels.

This means that if you eat get the recommended daily amount of potassium through food sources, your bones may be spared from having to give up calcium salts to neutralize the acidity in your diet! Overall, we would expect less bone breakdown and increased bone density in people who have higher potassium intake, and there have been a few studies which support this concept.

  • One study of 18 postmenopausal women showed that supplementing potassium bicarbonate led to increased levels of bone formation and decreased levels of bone breakdown.
  • Another study evaluated the impact of potassium intake on bone loss over time in both men and women. Men with a higher potassium intake lost less hip bone density than men who had lower potassium intake over a 4 year period. This same relationship was not seen for the women in this particular study.
  • Another study found a positive relationship between female bone density and potassium. This study included 266 elderly women and found that those with the highest potassium intake had higher bone densities than those with the lowest potassium intake over a 5 year period.

While the results of these studies have been mixed at times, there is certainly enough evidence to support increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, along with getting the RDA of potassium. Future studies will hopefully provide the clarity that we need when it comes to the relationship between potassium and your bones.

How Can You Get More Potassium Through Your Diet?

Just about everyone associates bananas with potassium, but few of us would be able to stomach the 11 bananas it would take to reach our daily potassium requirement. Check out the list below to find other food sources that are high in potassium.

  • Potato with skin (1 medium): 926 mg
  • Plums (1/2 cup): 637 mg
  • Raisins (1/2 cup): 598 mg
  • Prune Juice (6 ounces): 528 mg
  • Lima Beans (1/2 cup): 485 mg
  • Acorn Squash (1/2 cup): 448 mg
  • Banana (1 medium): 422 mg
  • Spinach (1/2 cup): 420 mg
  • Raisin Bran Cereal (1 cup): 362 mg
  • Orange Juice (6 ounces): 372 mg
  • Tomato (1 medium): 292 mg
  • Almonds (1 ounce): 200 mg