Put some potassium on your plate: here's why the mineral is so important

It’s an essential mineral for heart and muscle function, yet few people, even the health conscious, give it a second thought

Grilled salmon fillet with French beans and new potatoes - studio shot
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Diet-wise, it tends to be the little things that become most people's undoing. Most health-conscious foodies monitor their intake of the big three – protein, carbs and fat – like hawks, and can recite with military precision the exact ratio of their consumption. They can look at a plate and within seconds do the complicated calculations of how many calories are sitting on it, and how many of them came from simple versus complex carbohydrates. Few, however, can apply the same rigorous standard to vitamins and minerals.

A common myth is that as long as you're eating mostly healthily, you must be getting enough vitamins and minerals. And whatever little deficit there might still be, that's what the trusty little multivitamin pill is for, right? Not all the time, it turns out. While it is always best to obtain nutrients directly from food – natural consumption always trumps supplement intake – this is even more important in the case of certain micronutrients, notably potassium.

The World Health Organisation recommends, and most health professionals agree, that the adult human body needs about 3,500 to 4,700 milligrams of potassium daily to function normally. But in many countries, over-the-counter supplement brands cap the potassium dose at 80mg to 99mg, which is about 2 to 3 per cent of the daily recommended value. This is due to studies that link the supplemental intake of potassium to lesions in the small intestine. So there's really no getting around the pesky little problem of actually eating potassium-­rich foods if you want to remain in good health.

Dig deeper, and you'll come across some facts that will have you reaching for those mixed green salads in both alarm and wonder. Potassium, although not as publicised as its controversial brother sodium, is an important electrolyte – a mineral that carries an electric charge. "It's important for the body to have an adequate intake of potassium to perform important cellular activities, such as regulating fluid balance, nerve impulse transmission and contraction of muscles," says nutritionist Stephanie Karl, who works at Up and Running Medical Centre in Dubai.

“We also need potassium for optimum heart function and to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. If you’re otherwise healthy, it’s almost impossible to have too much potassium – the kidneys will excrete the excess through the urine, so there are practically no safety concerns. However, prolonged deficiency can lead to hypertension and kidney stone formation,” Karl adds.

We also need potassium for optimum heart function and to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. If you're otherwise healthy, it's almost impossible to have too much potassium – the kidneys will excrete the excess through the urine, so there are practically no safety concerns.

One of the most important and underrated benefits of a naturally potassium-rich diet is that it can help stem high blood pressure caused, in large part, by the dangerously high levels of sodium in our diets resulting from the increased consumption of packaged and processed food. Potassium helps remove excess sodium from the body, reducing the pressure on the arteries.

A 2013 review of 33 studies of more than 125,000 participants was undertaken to determine the relationship between high potassium intake and health. It established that in people with hypertension, the element drastically reduces both the systolic (pressure in the blood vessels when the heart contracts) and diastolic (pressure in the vessels when the heart rests between beats) readings, without any negative impact on kidney function or increase in blood-lipid levels.

The analysis also found that a potassium-rich diet lowered the risk of stroke by 24 per cent. In addition, the body needs copious potassium to simply move normally. You can have an enviable workout and diet plan, yet your weight-loss goals might lurk frustratingly out of reach if you don't have enough of the element in your diet.

A low blood-potassium level can cause cramps and spasms, making you feel weak and tired, which will have a direct impact on your ability to exercise.

Similarly, when the body is low on potassium, the nerve impulse transmission between the brain and muscles in the digestive tract can become weak, causing problems such as bloating, constipation and metabolic disturbances.

Now that's got to be making you reach for that banana in a hurry, but hang on a minute. While it's true that bananas have a high and readily available concentration of potassium – more than 400mg in a medium-sized portion – the fruit is also incredibly high in carbohydrates.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - - -  May 12, 2014 --- The baked potato with buffalo shaved on top at Shawarma Time restaurant on Najda Street in Abu Dhabi on Monday, May 12, 2014.    ( DELORES JOHNSON / The National )  ******** Reporter Jessica Hill  *******
Eating baked potatoes with their skin on is a great way to get some potassium. Delores Johnson / The National

"I wouldn't recommend daily consumption of bananas – there are so many healthier ways to get potassium from your food. Add green leafy vegetables into your smoothies instead, or have a tomato, carrot and asparagus salad," says Dr Nicole Sirotin, chair of preventive medicine at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. "If the goal is to get the potassium through fruits, melons and apricots (although they're on the high-sugar side) and strawberries and nectarines (they're relatively low-sugar) are packed with potassium as well.

"One of the richest sources of potassium you can have is a baked potato with the skin on. I also recommend black beans, salmon, carrots and spinach."

So there you have it, there are more ways than one – and some rather delicious – to load your body with all-important potassium. Go on, your heart, brain, blood and muscles will thank you for it.