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Why Is Potassium Important in the Diet?

By Lisa Sefcik paralegal

Potassium is important in the diet, allowing your cells, tissues and organs to function optimally. Classified as an electrolyte, potassium also regulates the electrical activity of your heart, builds protein and metabolizes carbohydrates. However, potassium becomes more important in your diet as your body ages. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, a potassium-rich diet can decrease high blood pressure and may also reduce your risk of kidney stones and bone loss.

Potassium-Rich Foods

Potassium exists in such a wide variety of foods, you'd be hard pressed to make a meal without it. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, or UMMC, potassium is abundant in all meats. Certain types of fish are high in potassium, including flounder, cod, salmon and sardines. Milk and other dairy products also contain potassium. Vegetarians and vegans have a wide variety of potassium foods from which to choose. The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, lists soy-based foods, nuts, broccoli, lima beans, peas, tomatoes, potatoes and sweet potatoes, winter squash, cantaloupe, citrus, bananas, kiwi fruit, prunes and fresh and dried apricots as foods high in potassium.

What You Need

According to the Dietary Guidelines, adolescents 14 and older, as well as adults, need 4.7g of potassium a day. Nursing mothers need up to 5.1g of potassium daily, states the NIH. The recommended amount of potassium for children between the ages of 1 to 3 is 3g; for those 4 through 8, 3.8g per day is recommended. Children between the ages of 9 and 13 need 4.5g of potassium every day.

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Potassium and Health

Reducing your sodium intake is crucial to reducing high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke, heart disease and kidney disease, according to the Dietary Guidelines. However, you can also achieve the same goal by increasing your dietary potassium. The Harvard Medical School cites a 2005 study published in "Hypertension" by St. George's Medical School of London. This study suggests that dietary potassium was just as effective at lowering blood pressure as potassium supplements. However, the Harvard Medical School also warns that a potassium-heavy diet isn't appropriate for people with medical conditions such as kidney disease, as these people need to avoid both potassium and sodium.

Potassium Deficiency

Potassium deficiency, or hypokalemia, is typically caused by vomiting and diarrhea, says the NIH. However, certain medications, such as diuretics, and medical conditions can also cause potassium deficiency. Some people with hypokalemia may need to supplement their diet with potassium supplements. Consult with your physician before talking potassium supplements or any other dietary supplement to address your specific health concerns.

Potassium Consumption

Despite the abundance of potassium-rich foods, the Dietary Guidelines indicate that Americans don't get enough of it from their daily diet. In the United States, adult men get only 2.8 to 3.3g daily. Women get 2.2 to 2.4g. The African American population in particular tends to suffer from hypertension due to sodium sensitivity and should boost potassium intake. Rather than taking potassium supplements to meet your health needs, the Harvard Medical School recommends increasing the number of potassium-rich foods in your diet.

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