Reduce your health risks with potassium

Besides being found in bananas, what do you really know about potassium? Find out how getting more of it can reduce your risk of some diseases.

Reduce your health risks with potassium

You're probably careful not to eat too much sodium, especially if you're watching your blood pressure. You might want to focus your efforts, however, on getting more potassium from foods such as raisins and baked potatoes. For some people, this mineral may be as important in controlling blood pressure as sodium.

The third most abundant mineral in the body after calcium and phosphorus, potassium is an electrolyte — a substance that takes on a positive or negative charge when dissolved in the watery medium of the bloodstream. Sodium and chloride are electrolytes, too, and the body needs a balance of these minerals to perform a host of essential functions.

Conditions it fights

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stroke

The effects of adding potassium to your diet

In an analysis of 33 studies, people with normal blood pressure levels who added 2,340 milligrams of potassium a day — from foods, supplements, or a combination — to their normal diets had an average drop of two points in systolic pressure (the upper reading) and one point in diastolic pressure (the lower reading). If the figures sound insignificant, consider that even these small changes reduce the chance of developing hypertension by 25 per cent. The extra potassium produced even greater benefits — a 4.4-point drop in systolic pressure and a 2.5-point drop in diastolic pressure — in people who already had high blood pressure.

What potassium does to the body

Along with other electrolytes, the body uses potassium to conduct nerve impulses, initiate muscle contractions, and regulate heartbeat and blood pressure. Studies have shown that people who get plenty of potassium in their diets have lower blood pressure than those who get very little, even when their sodium intake remains high (though reducing sodium produces better results).

Through its effects on blood pressure, potassium may also decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. In one study, a group of people with hypertension who ate one serving of a food high in potassium every day reduced their risk of fatal stroke by 40 per cent. Potassium may help against osteoporosis by preventing the body from stealing calcium from bones.

Tips for incorporating potassium into your diet

  • Microwave or steam vegetables whenever possible — boiling them decreases their potassium content. For example, boiled potatoes lose 50 percent of their potassium; steamed potatoes lose less than six percent.
  • Top a baked potato with steamed broccoli to further lower your blood pressure.
  • Certain diuretics, antacids, and laxatives can lower potassium levels. If you're taking one of these drugs, ask your doctor if you need a potassium supplement.

Foods that contain potassium

  • White beans
  • Tomatoes
  • Raisins
  • Potato, baked, with skin
  • Soybeans
  • Lima beans
  • Halibut
  • Winter squash
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
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