98% of American Diets Potassium-Deficient

Today's blog--

Less than 2% of Americans achieve even the recommended minimum adequate intake of potassium, due primarily to inadequate plant food intake.

If you take any plant, burn it to ash, throw the ash in a pot of water, stir it around, skim it off and then let the water evaporate, you’ll be left with a white residue at the bottom known as pot ash. It has been used since the dawn of history for everything from making soap, glass, fertilizers, and bleach. It was not until 1807, when a new element was discovered in this so-called “vegetable alkali.” They called it pot ashium—potassium. True story, which I bring up only to emphasize the most concentrated source in our diet, plants.

Every cell in the body requires the element potassium to function. As I detail in my 2-min. video 98% of American Diets Potassium-Deficient, for much of the last 3 million years or so, we ate so many plants that we probably got 10,000 mg of potassium in our daily diet. Today, we’d be lucky to get 3,000.

Less than 2% of Americans even get the recommended minimum adequate intake of 4,700 a day. To get even the adequate intake, the average American would have to eat like 5 more bananas worth of potassium a day. 98% of Americans eat potassium deficient diets because they don’t eat enough plants.

Why do we care? A review of all the best studies ever done on potassium intake and its relationship to two of our top killers, stroke and heart disease, was recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. A 1,600mg per day higher potassium intake was associated with a 21% lower risk of stroke. That still wouldn’t get the average American up to the minimum adequate intake, but it might be able to wipe out a fifth of their stroke risk. The paper concludes: “These results support recommendations for higher consumption of potassium-rich foods to prevent vascular diseases.”

What does “potassium-rich foods” mean? Find out in my 2-minute video, 98% of American Diets Potassium-Deficient. Hint: bananas don’t even make it into the top 50 sources!

People eating plant-based diets are often asked where they get their protein (and have to explain that plants are the preferred source). Maybe they should then ask where people eating conventional diets get their potassium–or their fiber for that matter (see Relieving Yourself of Excess Estrogen). For more on what we evolved to eat, see Paleolithic Lessons.

The banana listing reminds me of a similarly humorous finding about the levels of eyesight-saving nutrients in eggs versus greens. See Egg Industry Blind Spot.

Bananas are also kind of pitiful antioxidant-wise (see Best Berries and Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better?). Is it worth going out of our way to eat plants with the most antioxidants, though? See Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants to find out.

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here. And watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image credit: 24oranges.nl / Flickr

  • sandy

    If bananas don’t make it into the top 50 sources of potassium… then why on earth do you lead with that photo?

    • Cory

      Probably because most Americans believe that bananas are high in potassium. I think that is part of his point.

  • LaJuana

    Dr. Greger, my sister must be a 2%er…or maybe a 1%er. She was just told her potassium levels are high. 5.3. She said she was told that 5.2 is the cut off but is still quite concerned as the nurse told her to stop eating foods with Vitamin K in it and the mainstay of her diet is greens and beans…along with other vegetables, most of which she grows herself. She rarely eats bananas…the doctors office asked her if she ate a lot of them!. :) They had her double her water intake and have tested her again. She was getting a total of 64 oz. liquids daily with only 32 oz. being plain water so she has increased that to 64 oz. and left the other liquids as is. She is not diabetic and her A1C levels are good. She takes no prescription or OTC medication. Do you have any thoughts on such a situation? Thanks in advance for considering this!

  • I read this post and viewed the associated video, and I still can’t find any list of the most potassium-rich foods. ???

  • Dan Lundeen

    Despite the taunt on potassium to the paleotrolls here I have yet to see any postings here or any discussion of potassium in the paleolithic lessons comments. Mums the word.

    • Paleo Huntress

      “97% of non-vegans fail to get the RDA for potassium — you just can’t get enough if you replace any of the whole plants you should be eating with corpse flesh.”

      Considering that beef, yoghurt and salmon are all high potassium foods, and that many vegan staples are LOW in potassium, that’s a load of bunk. Nice try though. =)

      • Dan Lundeen

        Right on cue. So much like talking to a wall I can’t believe it! You slay PH.

        • Paleo Huntress

          I got up for work this morning, had my 3 egg breakfast with a side of blueberries and checked my email. So I guess you’d be right that I responded to your notification “on cue”. (I believe that’s why the site sends them.) =)  And you’re also correct that I absolutely slay false claims and poor arguments. Six ounces of salmon provides almost half</i) the DV of potassium– add in a daily spinach salad (which I'm enjoying as I type), roasted winter squash, an avocado and the almonds I snack on and we're WAY OVER the DV and I still have more food to eat. If instead I chose to eat whole grains as the basis for my diet, THIS would cause a deficiency as it takes 6-8 CUPS of the highest potassium containing cooked whole grain (quinoa- well, pseudo grain) to equal the amount the salmon contains- leaving very little room ("diplacing") for other potassium rich foods- which is what you were claiming animal foods would do. Oats and brown rice contain less than 80% the value of the quinoa.

          Bottom line?  Vegetarian diets high in whole grains are far more likely to be potassium deficient than omni diets without them.

          • Mike

            On which planet does 6oz of salmon provide half the DV of potassium?

            6oz salmon provides 600mg of potassium, a far cry from the minimum 3,600mg (2,300 for women).

            And who eats 2 servings of salmon per day? Even the Japanese don’t eat that much fish.

      • Leggies

        How is beef considered “high potassium” when you need 300 calories worth to achieve what 80 calories of sweet potato has?

        This is exactly why America is diseased and fat. People like you spreading nonsense information.

      • Cathal Spelman

        So how does a Low Fat, Wholefood, Plant based diet stack up against animal products. It can be difficult to compare, as many comparisons are based on weight. I was able to find one list of over 100 foods, listed by potassium content per calorie, which is a more useful comparison. The list is topped by beet greens, at 34.64 milligrams of potassium per calorie. The list goes all the way down to bananas at 4.02 mg potassium per calorie. Of the 100 or so foods on the list, all are plant foods, with the exception of nonfat yogurt and some fish which came in around 4.3. (neither beef nor salmon were in the top 100). This would indicate that a wholefood plant based diet would provide much more potassium per calorie, and sufficient potassium without excess calories. Here is the link for those interested: http://www.fitday.com/fitness/forums/food-talk/5396-high-potassium-low-calories-food-list-k-calories-ratio.html

  • mlhnrca
  • Butters

    Interesting article but this would have been a lot more helpful if it included recommendations of foods high in potassium! Don’t just leave me hangin!

  • yuh

    Where did you get this statistic? Seems pretty convenient if you ask me.