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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.

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.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

34 responses to “98% of American Diets Potassium-Deficient

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  1. 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!

    1. Did anyone ever answer this? I have the same question. I enjoy an excellent plant based diet and try to drink enough water and my potassium count is always borderline above the recommended range. Do I have to cut back a bit and highly nutritious foods that are high in potassium?

      1. Hello Michael (and LaJuana, if you happen to come across this response),

        Thank you for your question. I am a family doctor with a private practice in lifestyle medicine that focuses on plant-based nutrition, and I also volunteer for this website.

        Having a potassium level that is “borderline high” — e.g. 5.3 when the upper limit of normal is 5.2, is almost certainly nothing to worry about. You have to remember that the so-called “normal” range for potassium of 3.5-5.2 is calculated from “normal” people who eat a standard American diet. My guess is that if vegans were used to calculate the normal range, the upper limit would be slightly higher.

        Having said that, sometimes a high potassium level (“hyperkalemia”) can be a cause for concern. It can indicate the presence of renal (kidney) dysfunction.
        It can occur with significant muscle trauma — which causes hemolysis, with administration of potassium salts of some drugs, with potassium sparing diuretics, sometimes even with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and with several other medical conditions — e.g. Addison’s disease.

        So to answer your question, NO, a person who doesn’t have any health problems (especially kidney problems) and doesn’t take any medications almost certainly does NOT need to cut back on on eating nutritious, high potassium foods. Dr. Greger has done lots of videos on the benefits of potassium — just type “potassium” into the “Search” box at the top of the page.

        I hope this helps.
        Health Support Volunteer for Nutrition

        1. That was very helpful. Thank you. I needed someone familiar with Dr Greger’s type of nutritional research to answer my question. My GP is well meaning but not well informed. At the very least I can try to drink more water (despite my enlarged prostrate).
          Can i ask a follow up question? I have the opposite concern with my platelets which are borderline low. I want to be careful about eating foods that would be helpful such as spinach, oranges, vitamin K greens, carrots, and salmon even though they are high in potassium ( besides other beneficial foods). I should concentrate on eating them anyway, right? I eat almost no meat, dairy or even fish but am careful to get all nutrients needed.

  2. 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.

    1. “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. =)

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

      1. 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.

      2. 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:

        1. A wholefood plant based diet would only provide much more potassium per calorie if the individual doesn’t eat grains. The staples that most plant-based people depend on (cereals) are not high potassium foods either, and they’re much higher in calories. The typical Westerner gets 32% daily calories from animal products. The rest come from plants and most of those are refined. I think it’s an issue of whole versus refined rather than plant-only versus plant and animal.

          If a whole-food omni has yogurt at breakfast, chicken breast or salmon for lunch and beef or turkey for dinner, that’s 45% of the RDA for potassium in under 500 calories. To get the same potassium in brown rice you’d need to eat 4860 calories. To get it in wheat berries, it would cost 1400 calories and it would cost 1250 calories in oats.

          There are more calories available for sweet potatoes, spinach, nuts and fruit after eating animal products than there is after eating whole grains. Of course there are WFPB people who don’t eat grains, but that’s not typical. Either way, a whole food omni diet isn’t going to be the least bit deficient in potassium and it’s quite easy for a whole WFPB diet to deficient is it’s centered around whole grains.

          1. Ancestral Ann: Most experts I know recommend people focus on all 4 healthy food groups: intact grains, beans, fruits, and veggies in about equal amounts, with at most a small amount of nuts and seeds. For example, if you look at Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen, you will see that he doesn’t center the diet around whole grains. Grains are just one (very important) component. For a very simple graphic, check out the PCRM (Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine) Power Plate:
            While potassium is important, it is obviously not the only important nutrient to pay attention to. The really good overall benefits we get from intact grains is why grains are included in a healthy diet. Here is an overview page of what we get from grains: On the other hand, while some animal products may have some potassium, they also come with a whole host of bad side effects. (for example: So, it would not be wise to consume animal products for their potassium. This particular page is about potassium deficiency. My point is that any time we look at a particular nutrient, we also have to keep the big picture in mind when making recommendations.
            I’m also not sure of your math. For example, 1/2 fillet of salmon is 367 calories (, and that’s just half a fillet and not counting the rest of your list of animal foods.

            1. A 3 oz portion of salmon (dry cooked) contains 15% of the RDA for potassium and 155 calories.

              An 8oz cup of non-fat yogurt contains 18% of the RDA and 137 calories

              A cup of cubed chicken breast on a salad contains 11% of the RDA and 231 calories

              You’re right, I underestimated by 23 calories.

              I agree about the big picture and I agree with most experts, that animal products are good, nutritious food, certainly 25% of calories in the context of a whole food diet is.


              1. re: “…animal products are good…” Yikes. I would encourage you to hang out here and learn more! Check out the links I provided above.

                1. I’ve been following this blog for years. I’ve already checked them all out. The primary difference is that my research doesn’t end with the cherry-picked resources the doctor provides. I prefer a more balanced perspective.

                  Thank you, Thea.

                    1. Thea,

                      As a long term moderator in this forum I would expect nothing less than your full buy-in here. Respectfully, I simply don’t agree. I’m not ignorant nor have I missed any big revelations from this website, I’ve seen every one of the doctor’s videos. I’m educated, I’m well-read and researched, and I simply disagree. (I’m in pretty good company too.) Please respect that. Thank you.

  3. 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!

  4. As a lady i enjoy being a small size. It is less weight to pack around. I am concerned about the health of my heart. It seems very sensitive to my diet. Sadly my female doctor refused to run expensive tests on my heart and failed to recommend what sort of care my heart needed even though she said i had a heart condition. It is too easy to be belittled and swept under the rug. Whoever’s life matters? they make sure its never mine.

    1. Sadly some doctors do not spend time teaching their patients about diet, though a lot of doctors don’t have any background or education on these matters to begin with. It’s best not to rely on your doctor to tell you how to eat and prevent disease but instead take charge of your own health and learn about these things on your own. The videos on this site should be really helpful. Also, for an AWESOME and life saving education, I highly recommend Dr. Greger’s book “How Not to Die” which I think will answer all your questions and then some.

  5. People don’t want to eat vegetables, which are way higher source than fruits, and bananas do have more than oranges and about equal too potatoes. All are high sources. But vegetable beat the sox off of all them, that is if they are fresh and cooked like someone knows their worth.

  6. This is pure lies. Emedicine reports that the sickest people at their sickest (patients in ER) only 20% of them are deficient and that’s usually due to old age, chronic illness, or other temporary unrelated factors that might hospitalize someone. That means 20% is above the national average, logically. 1/2 cup of juice is daily potassium need, and like 100 other staple goods.

    For an MD to have sponsored this you should have your license revoked for including in your name at the top of the article. Full on lies.

  7. See the best sources of potassium: The only meat that offers a noteworthy amount of potassium is fish but it cannot be consumed too frequently due to mercury. Anyone not eating vegetables is probably deficit. Fortunately, this can easily be circumvented with potassium chloride. 1 teaspoon of it gives about 2.3k mg of potassium, half of the rdi. Just mix a teaspoon with 800 ml of water.

    1. Hi Jason,

      Here are all the studies featured in this article:

      Eaton SB, Konner M. Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. N Engl J Med. 1985 Jan 31;312(5):283-9.

      Jew S, AbuMweis SS, Jones PJ. Evolution of the human diet: linking our ancestral diet to modern functional foods as a means of chronic disease prevention. J Med Food. 2009 Oct;12(5):925-34.

      Cogswell ME, Zhang Z, Carriquiry AL, Gunn JP, Kuklina EV, Saydah SH, Yang Q, Moshfegh AJ. Sodium and potassium intakes among US adults: NHANES 2003-2008. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Aug 1.

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