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98% of American Diets Potassium Deficient

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

December 19, 2012 |
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Acknowledgements

Images thanks to: Fir0002 and Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons; National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 2546, and Sam Wilkinson.

Transcript

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 it evaporate, you’ll be left with a white residue at the bottom known as pot ash, used since the dawn of history for everything from making soap, glass, fertilizers, and bleach. It was not until 1807, though, when a new element was discovered in this so-called vegetable alkali, in pot ash, so 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. For much of the last 3 million years or so, we ate so many plants that we 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 a day. 98% of Americans eat potassium deficient diets, primarily because they don’t eat enough plants.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ashley Rhinehart, RN.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

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. This is the first of a three part series on potassium. Tomorrow we'll explore its role in Preventing Strokes with Diet.

For some more context, please check out my associated blog post: 98% of American Diets Potassium Deficient

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Craig

    Great series! I love that your videos are short and packed with proven information. Thanks.

  • Mack

    I’ve suspected for a long time that the recommended nutritional requirements set to avoid sickness are often set unnecessarily high. Case in point: 98% of the population isn’t getting enough potassium- but 98% of the population isn’t dropping dead. Could it be that the standards are set so high to encourage us to buy more nutritionally rich foods such as meat, eggs and milk?

    • Vegano

      Nutritionally rich foods?? meat, eggs and milk? You do know that green vegetables are the most nutrient dense foods in planet earth, right?

      Maybe that was sarcasm…

      • Mack

        Excuse me; I meant protein-rich foods.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Don-Matesz/1555993211 Don Matesz

      Roughly 50% of Americans die from cardiovascular disease, and about 30% die of cancer. Diabetes and hypertension are widespread. Nutritional imbalances don’t always kill you outright but they can cause chronic disease and have long term health consequences. We have some good evidence that the current potassium recommendation is probably half of what we require to prevent chronic diseases. BTW meat, eggs, and milk are rather poor sources of potassium. Potatoes, bananas, and legumes are much richer sources, so if anything, the standards encourage consumption of inexpensive plants, not animal foods.

  • dimqua

    Dr. Greger,

    What is your opinion regarding salt substitutes based on potassium chloride? They are safe for healthy vegans?

    • Rph1978

      The only thing I can find is that hyperkalemia can result IF you have renal failure and adding too much KCL to a meal can cause stomach irritation.

    • http://www.DonForresterMD.com/ Don Forrester MD

      Used in moderation it should be fine. The best results for the least used is to add sparingly at the table and avoid cooking with it. The same approach works for sodium chloride aka table salt. The only problem is with folks with very poor kidney function.

  • Rph1978

    Potassium is an important mineral for cellular biochemical
    reactions in the body. Cardiac arrhythmia’s can be caused by potassium deficiency and observational studies have shown a strong association between low serum potassium and higher diabetes risk (Expert Rev Endocrinol Metab. 2011 September; 6(5): 665–672). Low potassium results in diminished output of insulin from pancreatic B-cells in response to high blood sugar levels.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670735069 Tan Truong

      “Cardiac arrhythmia’s can be caused by potassium deficiency”

      Interesting. I must look more into this.

  • nameless

    I use you as a constant source of help to convince my loved ones that I’m leading a healthy lifestyle and that they should too. I’ve been following a low fat, plant based lifestyle for almost a year. But now in the midst of Christmas time, I feel so beaten down. I’m a buzzkill to my husband. I’m constantly questioned regarding the health of my little ones. I guess meat will have to creep back in for the sake of my marriage. An extension of life won’t matter if it is a miserable one.

    • HereHere

      I hope you can find a way to be happy in your marriage and keep to your plant-based diet. Maybe hubby has to cook and shop a bit more for himself???

      • EccoLa

        That’s hardly the recipe for a happy marriage if he is already causing tension about her plant-based diet. The greatest success in winning over meat-eaters is to introduce them to delicious plant-based meals they enjoy. I have found that is always the path to success — through the stomach!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/patricia.barnes.758 Patricia Barnes

    So, what are the foods richest in potassium? Dark leafy greens? Swiss chard at the top of the list or what?

  • beccadoggie10

    I was told several years ago that I had a heart murmur. Then, in an unrelated episode, last March, as I was pulling the bottom sheet across the bed, I fractured my lumbar spine (5-L). Where the two come together is that in order to reduce pain from the spinal injury and not wanting either surgery or cortisone steroid injections for the rest of my life, I turned to a book by Neal Barnard, M.D. and nutritional researcher, entitled, Foods That Fight Pain.

    Apparently it does not matter how one’s pain is caused, some foods increase inflammation like meat, corn, wheat, nuts, and dairy. While other foods like collard greens, bok choy, kale, and a variety of vegetables, fruit like berries, lentils, beans, rice and quinoa, and other plant based proteins can actually fight pain.

    Dr. Barnard suggested a diet for 3 weeks, which I stayed with for 6 months. During the time I was strictly following his suggestions, the pain disappeared, as did the heart murmur, my cholesterol level dropped into the normal range from over 300, and I lost 60 pounds.

    I was losing weight so fast, it felt like I was crashing. And, I thought I better slow down. Picking up some of the foods I missed like low fat yogurt, I found I was allergic to in that it affected my ability to breathe clogging my mucous membranes. To make certain I was getting enough B-12, I picked up wild, Alaskan sockeye salmon twice a week, and my weight fell a bit further.
    Rice and apples made my fingers numb, so I avoided rice for quinoa, and picked up oatmeal (high in calcium) and began eating more certified organic berries with dried figs (for calcium) and certified organic tofu.
    I ate 5-6 cups of high calcium, nutrient rich veggies per day, nearly all my calcium needs, which were cooked in miso and water to gain some of the vitamin k2 needed for my bones. And, supplemented with calcium, a multiple vitramin, krill and antioxidants, and 2,000 IU vitamin D/ day. I maintained my weight until I picked up nuts, of which I ate too many.
    Now, I’m backing down again, even though the pain has been managable without drugs. Dropping down to no more than 6 nuts per day (cashew or almond or walnuts). Cutting back on yogurt and watching my salmon intake to one serving per week with no other meat or animal products.
    My goal is to lose another 50 pounds, but I may need to go totally vegan again to do this. I eat 6 servings of nutrient rich vegetables per day and 3 fruits per day. What suggestions do you have for me?

    • http://www.DonForresterMD.com/ Don Forrester MD

      Congratulations on your success. Good luck with the next 50#’s. The key to fat loss is eating less calorie dense foods generally found in the four food groups as outlined by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (Neal Barnard is founder and president) since the mid 1990′s. These are vegetables, fruits, complex carbohydrates and legumes. The best presentation on this subject is by Jeff Novick RD and can be ordered from his website. The title is Calorie Density Eat More Weigh Less and Live longer. You can be a “fat” vegan if you consume higher calorie dense foods such as nuts, oils and high fat processed vegan foods. Another resource you might enjoy is Doug Lisle’s video on You Tube, How to lose weight without losing your mind… see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAdqLB6bTuQ. I would take a Vitamin B12 supplement see Dr Greger’s series in February 2012 for details. I would avoid all animal products. The fish contains mercury, arsenic and persistent organic pollutants not to mention being high in fat and hence calorie dense. Thanks for sharing your story and best wishes.

      • Coacervate

        Thank you for the link to Dr. lisle’s presentation. It explains the plateau I hit 2 years ago. I understand what i’m doing wrong and know the trades i need to make…Big big help so much appreciated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/neva.davis.7 Neva Davis

    Is there ever an absorption issue with potassium? For example do you need to consume it at the same time as other nutrients, or make sure you don’t eat it with certain foods?

    • http://www.DonForresterMD.com/ Don Forrester MD

      Potassium absorption is very straightforward and you need not worry about timing or other foods. Happy New Year.

  • Frank

    Dear Doctor Greger,

    I appreciate your work very much. Great. Thank´s a lot!

    One question:

    I´m consuming a lot of smoothies currently, I feel awesome, my teeth not so much. I thought about getting myself some Potassium-Carbonat to alkalize the smoothies. I´m a bit concerned about the possibility of neutralizing e.g. Ascorbic acid as Na-Ascorbat is showing adverse health effects, while Ascorbic Acid usually doesn´t.

    Do you know anything about the influence of neutralizing fruit juices on their nutritional value?

    Thanks again and keep up the good work!

    Any chance you´re seeking some Academic to work for you ???

    Greets,

    Frank

  • Anthony G

    Great video, please keep up the great education that we should have been exposed to in high school. Anthony G.

  • deborahconner

    How about giving us the best sources of K here?

  • Lewis

    If 98% of Americans suffer from low potassium, why don’t you add potassium to your list of optimum supplement recommendations here:

    http://nutritionfacts.org/2011/09/12/dr-gregers-2011-optimum-nutrition-recommendations/

    Any reason?

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      I do (in the form of greens and beans! :)

  • Paleo Huntress

    Considering all of the fear-mongering that goes on around claims of animal-food-caused acidosis- I find this an interesting topic. Potassium deficiency is likely to cause alkalosis (called Potassium Deficient Alkalosis) in most people. It would seem to me that if most meat eaters are potassium deficient, they are also more likely to have an alkaline metabolism rather than an acid metabolism.

    Would you please comment on this, Dr. Greger?

  • Tobias Brown

    1 tablespoon of molasses (295 mg) of potassium.

  • Carolyn Bryant Schaub

    Thank you for eliminating the pauses in your speech pattern. I actually enjoyed listening this time!