Going Bananas and...

Unsexy but possibly helpful info about that often-overlooked mineral, potassium. Bananas really aren't enough.


...potatoes and kale and beans and seeds. Potassium, are you getting enough? How much of this essential mineral do you eat in one day?

Good luck finding out (easily). Potassium isn't listed on most food nutrition labels and it's not in most multivitamin/mineral supplements. It's not even that easy to find potassium supplements. Why? Best I can figure, it's assumed we're going to get enough from our diet, which would be true, if we could see on the label how much potassium something contains. Or doesn't.

The one place I've found this info is on our bottle of tangerine juice — 420mg per 8oz cup. But the question remains, what's the RDA? My treasured Nutrition Almanac (3rd edition) says 2,000 - 2,500 mg a day is sufficient. That was published in 1990. More recent recommendations say 4,700. That's a lot more.

Take a look at the food you eat in a typical day and find out how much potassium it contains (you'll have to look it up in a book or online.) If you're eating for convenience, I'll betcha a cup of garbanzo beans that you might get around 1,000 mg, maybe 1,200 mg.

The reason I went poking around into potassium? I forget now, probably because I'm not getting enough. I just know it was before I nearly ate my weight in olives one night and started wondering when my head would explode from the metric ton of sodium.

See, sodium & potassium need to be in balance and that balance is that you should have twice as much potassium as sodium in your cells. Unfortunately, I'm taking after my Nana with a salt shaker in almost every room of the house.

So I thought I'd look into it, because for months now — longer, really, but who can remember  I've felt only OK. Not great. Sometimes good, but I can't remember when that was either. I can put on my pants and go places when I have to. But most days I'm dragging ass and shouldn't be.

FYI, the symptoms of potassium deficiency are (from Nutritional Supplement Educational Centre, but this list is fairly common to most sources I found):

Muscle Cramps Muscle Fatigue and Weakness Irregular Heartbeat Fatigue Mental Confusion Irritability Abnormally Dry Skin Insatiable Thirst Chills Depression Nervousness Low Blood Pressure Insomnia Diarrhea Salt Retention High Cholesterol Constipation Edema Periodic Headaches Glucose Intolerance Extreme cases, cardiac arrest

I can check off 16 of the 23 symptoms listed. My major issues are related to energy and fatigue, or the lack thereof. But I also get chilled all the time and if I had a CamelBak, I'd wear it all the time because I'm never not thirsty (and no, I'm not diabetic).

This list is also fairly similar to the list of symptoms one can experience due to low thyroid function (hypothyroidism). I've been through that before - a brief bout with subclinical hypothyroidism. But that range of symptoms includes particular things not on this list that are tell-tale signs, such as low body temperature, weight gain, inability to lose weight, always freezing cold, debilitating fatigue, irregular (or stopped) periods, hair loss... I remember the debilitating fatigue. That was awful. This hasn't been anything like that. Just a general subpar feeling.

So, how could this have happened? Well, if you start researching rich sources of potassium, you find out that bread doesn't have it and neither does pasta, most cereals, eggs, nor anything that comes in a box or bag.

The entire time I was in school (during my recent grind at California College of the Arts), that's pretty much how I survived. I ate whatever I could quickly shove down my gullet so I could keep moving. And that's how most of the country survives, on quick, affordable, packaged foods (or worse, fast food).

Fruit? Who has time to wash and eat fruit and get your hands all sticky while you're working in the darkroom or the digital lab? Vegetables? No time. Unless it's in a V-8 or a smoothie, forget it. I had the occasional salad, but lettuce doesn't cut it, potassium-wise.

What I've found in my quest for this valuable mineral is if you eat a "hunter/gatherer" diet, you're gonna get pretty good potassium. If you're eating anything that comes in a box or a bag, it's essentially worthless. But not all fruits & veg have as much as you think they might.

Here's an extensive though not exhaustive list* of typical, non-processed foods and their potassium levels (avg. milligrams). I didn't include dried fruit and some juices because they're high in sugar, and for the dried fruit, you'd have to eat about 5x the amount you would if eating the actual fruit to get any substantial potassium out of it, and then you know where that's going to land you. Yes, that's right — in the loo. For most of the day. Again, who has time for that?

Thinking about my typical diet the past couple of years (or longer): whole wheat toast w/ almond butter in the morning, maybe a sandwich at lunch, Powerbar snack and some sort of quick, pasta or meat thing for dinner, it's no wonder my intake was low. For years it's been like that. 

So, I've revamped and am adding more vegetables and fruit back into my diet, but I'm also supplementing a little to get my levels closer to the average RDA. Just yesterday, without supplementation, my potassium intake would have been about 2,400mg. Not bad, but not 4,700mg, and that was with pecans in my breakfast, spinach and sunflower seeds in my lunch, fruit in the afternoon and broccoli salad for dinner.

I have to think that without a small amount of supplementation, how can anyone eat enough of the foods listed above and reach optimal levels without eating their weight in groceries every day and blowing up like a balloon?

But bear in mind, if you have kidney problems, you have to keep an eye on potassium levels to ensure they don't get too high, but with the dearth of potassium in the average diet is that even possible?

Oh, and remember, I'm not a doctor, I just play one on the internet. Do your research, talk to your lab-coat-wearing automaton and take care of yourself. No one else is going to do it for you.

* Most values from Nutrition Almanac, 3rd Edition and may be somewhat outdated.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dee Lonn February 25, 2012 at 01:38 AM
That's why I eat a banana. Great job.
Evelyn Kennedy February 25, 2012 at 05:30 PM
Jennifer: That means I only have to eat 5 1/2 bananas a day. I know I am potassium deficient because I do have some of the symptoms you mentioned. Fortunately, I love all the foods that are high in potassium. Just have to change my diet. Nice post.
Jennifer Loring February 25, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Thanks! 5.5 Bananas would still only get you 2,400 mg of potassium! And that's definitely bananas. I'm headed toward more swiss chard, beans & seeds, and I'll be making carrot juice a lot more often - glad I have a juicer!
Mark Irons February 25, 2012 at 06:08 PM
1/2 grapefruit = 850mg according to http://www.stuartxchange.org/Potassium.html potatoes are real high potassium content, but white starch ( potatoes, pasta, rice) is bad for weight gain.
Jennifer Loring February 26, 2012 at 03:21 AM
Forgot about grapefruit... I think potatoes are fine if you keep the skin on and skip the butter & toppings - and maybe pair them with higher fiber foods & protein to balance it out somewhat, but absolutely, pasta & rice, as much as I love them - no bueno. Putting brown & wild rice in tonight's chicken & veg soup!
Jennifer Loring February 26, 2012 at 09:29 PM
Well that's annoying. Almost no potassium in brown rice, but there's a bit more in wild rice. Good thing I have supplements.


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