The foods we consume give us the energy, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins that can help us function properly. Eating a well-balanced diet is more difficult than expected, factoring in dietary preferences and food availability (1).
There have been several theories about the effects of nutrients in ones’ cognition and the management of emotions. It is believed that there are several important mechanisms that involve diet in mental function and brain health (2).
In terms of physical health, both nutrition and physical activity can determine an individual’s health status and quality of life. In one particular study conducted with older adults showed that obesity is determined by poor diet and physical inactivity. This has become a major health concern for people in this age group as it also reflects their quality of life (3). Of course, this conclusion is also applicable to people who are trying to lose weight.
The body needs nutrients such as vitamins and minerals to reach optimal health. One such mineral that greatly influences weight loss is potassium.
What is Potassium?
Potassium is considered as the most abundant intracellular cation. This essential nutrient is available in many food products.
Potassium is important in maintaining the fluid volume within the cells and the electrochemical gradients existing across a cell membrane. That being said, potassium can be found in all body tissues and is crucial to have a normal cell function (4). With its relationship with sodium, it helps in regulating the plasma volume, as well.
Potassium is excreted in the body through sweating, urination, and defecation.
How Much Potassium is Present in the Body?
In an adult body, potassium’s total amount is about 45 mmol/kg of body weight (5). Most of the potassium can be found in the cell or in the extracellular fluid. The concentration of potassium within the cells is 30 times more than the concentration found in the fluid (6).
That being said, it is difficult to assess the potassium status in the body. Checking the blood potassium levels can give you an idea, but it still can’t give you a clear picture of its overall status, especially in the tissue potassium stores (7).
Since potassium is excreted on a daily basis through urine, if you combine it with other unavoidable losses, you might suffer from the effects of low potassium levels.
What Does Potassium Do For The Body?
Potassium is highly reactive in water, hence called an electrolyte. When mixed with water, it can produce positively charged ions. This allows it to conduct electricity, which is crucial for several bodily functions. Potassium-rich diet is associated with several health benefits.
1. It Promotes Fluid Balance
Our body is made of 60% water (8). Forty percent of which is found inside the cells in a substance more commonly known as intracellular fluid or ICF. The remaining 20% is present in between or outside the cells, including spinal fluid and blood. This is known as the extracellular fluid (ECF).
The amount of water in the ICF and ECF is greatly affected by their electrolytes. Potassium and sodium are the main electrolytes in the ICF and ECF, respectively. Under normal conditions, there should be a balance of electrolytes inside and outside your cells.
When there is an imbalance, water will move from the side with fewer electrolytes into the compartment with more concentrations to bring equilibrium. If water moves out of a cell, there can be shrinkage. On the other hand, swelling and bursting are possible if too much water goes into the cell (9).
It is really important for you to keep a good balance of fluids and electrolytes in your body. Poor fluid balance may cause dehydration and eventually affect your heart and kidneys (10).
2. It Is Important for the Nervous System
The nervous system conveys messages between the brain and the body in the form of nerve impulses. They help regulate heartbeat, muscle contractions, reflexes, and several other body functions (11). These nerve impulses are generated by the movements of sodium and potassium ions into and out of cells. Their movement changes the voltage of the cell and activates nerve impulses (12). A drop in blood potassium level can greatly affect your ability to generate a nerve impulse (13).
3. It Regulates Muscle and Heart Contractions
As mentioned earlier, the nervous system regulates muscle contractions. Unfortunately, an altered blood potassium level can affect nerve signals and weaken muscle contractions.
Potassium is important for your heart too! Its movement in and out of cells can help maintain a regular heartbeat. When blood levels are extremely high, the heart will dilate and become flaccid. This weakens its contraction, thus creating an abnormal heartbeat (14).
Likewise, extremely low levels in the blood can also affect the heartbeat. A heart that does not pump properly will not be able to supply blood to the brain, organs, and muscles. In some cases, this may lead to arrhythmia and can be fatal (15).
Other Health Benefits of Potassium
A potassium-rich diet can help stop or manage certain health problems. Here are some of its wonderful health benefits:
- People with high blood pressure will notice a reasonable drop in their blood pressure level because potassium can help the body remove excess sodium.
- It can eliminate salt sensitivity which is a culprit of spiking the blood pressure.
- It lowers the risk of having a stroke (16, 17).
- It can strengthen the bones and help prevent osteoporosis by decreasing the amount of calcium excreted in urine (18, 19).
- It can maintain the normal brain function level and stimulates neural activity.
- It prevents the development of kidney stones. Studies show that potassium citrate can help lower calcium levels in urine, which is a common mineral in kidney stones (20, 21).
- Diabetics can benefit from it because it helps stabilize blood sugar levels.
What Happens if You Have Low Potassium Levels?
Hypokalemia is the medical term for potassium deficiency. Some of its symptoms are related to muscle strength, cardiovascular system, and nerve functions.
- General fatigue can be experienced by those with low potassium levels. Each of your cells needs adequate potassium to perform their roles properly.
- Cramps and weak muscles are inevitable with hypokalemia. Potassium helps in the contraction of your smooth muscles and without enough of it, pain and spasms are well underway.
- A sudden decrease in potassium can slow down the heartbeat. When your heartbeat is low, you feel dizzy. Worse comes to worst, you might pass out.
- You can either experience a skipped heartbeat or palpitations when you have low potassium levels.
- Potassium deficiency can be characterized by bloating, constipation, and powerful abdominal cramps.
- Without enough potassium to power up your nerves, you might feel a constant tingling and numbing of your extremities.
In addition to all of these, not having enough potassium might even lead to weight gain.
One study about the role of potassium in people with either obesity or metabolic syndrome suggests that there is enough correlation. By consuming adequate amounts of potassium daily, the risks of developing metabolic syndrome or becoming obese are reduced. Additionally, the findings also prove that fruits and vegetables, which are good sources of potassium, are quite beneficial (22).
On the upside, there are several claims that having enough potassium in your body can do wonders for your weight loss efforts.
Potassium and Weight Loss: What is the Connection?
Having potassium can help you lose weight, thanks to its protective properties. This nutrient is linked to weight loss in many ways.
1. It Can Help Build Muscles
Potassium plays an important role in building muscles. A study proved that potassium-deficient fodder rats stopped growing in just a few days. The observations proved that adequate potassium levels ensure the proper use of food elements in protein synthesis and growth (23). Aside from building muscles, potassium ensures that these muscles are in great condition to convert food intake to energy. This process is a big factor in weight loss because it aids in the processing of different nutrients in the body such as fats and carbs. The energy extraction from the foods that you consume helps boost metabolism at the same time.
2. It Facilitates Burning of More Calories
Additionally, by having bigger and better muscles, your body can burn more calories. In one study, it was concluded that people who are obese have more muscle mass compared to those under normal weight. However, the problem is that they have poor muscle quality. Big muscle quantity is not necessarily better. People who are trying to lose weight suffer from reduced muscle mass, but it does not have anything to do with muscle strength (24). Potassium can strengthen your muscles and make them bigger, so it is ideal to include it in your weight loss program. With stronger and bigger muscles, your body becomes consistent in fat burning which can result in more weight loss.
3. It Balances Electrolyte Levels and Boosts Energy
Potassium also increases energy. It helps your skeletal muscles by ensuring their efficiency and effectiveness in your body. It also provides the same function to your heart, the most important of all your muscles. Potassium can do this by crafting a perfect balance of electrolytes. Dietary potassium is mostly lacking in Western diets. It results in elevated blood pressure and increased sensitivity to salt. A diet high in sodium and low in potassium is a recipe for hypertension and cardiovascular disease (25). This electrolyte imbalance can be remedied by increasing your potassium intake and balancing the sodium to potassium ratio.
A study regarding food sources of energy and nutrients was conducted with adults that are divided into different age groups. It showed that adults get a large amount of their total energy from energy-dense foods that are low in nutrients. It identified potassium as one of the nutrients of concern, along with vitamin D and calcium (26). It is difficult for Americans to meet the right amount of nutrients while trying to maintain their energy needs. This can result in becoming overweight or obese and undernourished at the same time (27). With adequate potassium levels, additional energy is provided. It motivates you to work out regularly and speeds up your weight loss results. However, because potassium is also excreted through body sweat, you must be conscious and make proactive efforts in replenishing the potassium released during your exercise.
How Much Potassium Should You Include in Your Diet?
In the US, about 98% of adults are not meeting their potassium daily requirements (28).
People with hypokalemia only have 3.5 mmol per liter of blood potassium level (29). According to one study, most people with the deficiency did not develop this condition due to low potassium consumption, but it is rather the result of losing too much potassium (30).
The recommended daily intake (RDI) of potassium for adolescents up to adults is 4,700 mg a day. For children, it depends on the age group. The RDI for kids who are 1 to 3 years of age is 3000 mg a day. An RDI of 3,800 mg/day is advised for those with 4 to 8 years of age. Lastly, children with 9 to 13 years of age should consume 4,500 mg of potassium a day (31).
Certain groups of people may need to get the highest recommended consumption of potassium. For instance, athletes who do long workouts can lose a lot of potassium through excessive sweating (32). The risk of developing cardiovascular issues, osteoporosis, or kidney stones can be lowered for those who are susceptible to them simply by consuming more potassium. In one study, African Americans can lower their salt sensitivity by taking 4,700 mg a day (33).
People who are eager to lose weight diligently exercise every day, but it can lead to depletion of potassium in the body. It is important to replace them when you work out.
Do Potassium Supplements Work?
Potassium supplements are not ideal sources. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow over-the-counter (OTC) potassium supplements to contain more than 100 mg in every serving. This amount is barely 2% of the RDI (34). The best way to improve your potassium level is by taking a variety of whole foods. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of this mineral.
The Best Potassium-Rich Whole Foods for Your Weight Loss Diet
Following the recommended RDI is enough to provide promising results for about 97 to 98% of healthy individuals (35). By making healthy choices, you can lose weight and ensure that you still have enough potassium in your system after a rigorous workout.
- Banana is the most popular food linked to potassium. It contains 422 mg in a single medium-sized banana.
- Avocados are perfect for weight loss because it can suppress hunger. It is widely regarded as a superfood for its healthy fats and protein content (36). It also packs 487 mg potassium and only 7 mg of sodium in 100 grams of serving.
- Spinach is a vegetable that is high in nutrients. A cup of frozen spinach contains 540 mg potassium and other nutrients like vitamin K, magnesium, and loads of vitamin A. Meanwhile 3 cups of fresh spinach contains 558 mg potassium (37).
- Watermelon is high in water content and is a perfect addition to any weight loss diet. It also contains 640 mg potassium in just two slices. It is also a great vitamin A and vitamin C source (38). Dieters should take advantage of this summer fruit.
- Sweet potatoes have been receiving good compliments from dieters recently. It is considered a healthier alternative to potatoes. In a medium-sized one, you can find 541 mg of potassium with an added bonus of fiber and vitamin A. It is also a great source of complex carbs (39).
- White beans such as cannellini, navy beans, and lima beans can be easily incorporated in your weight loss diet. They are very easy to cook and can be great additions to any stew or salad. A cup of any type of these white beans can give you 828 mg of potassium along with iron and protein (40).
- Black beans or turtle beans are found in many soup recipes and of course, burritos. A cup contains 611 mg of potassium (41). However, it has phytates that are known blockers of mineral absorption. Soaking the beans overnight before using them in your recipes can lower the number of phytates in them.
- Edamame is immature soybeans inside the pods. It is a very popular food in Japan. It has a good amount of fiber content that can help you feel full longer and is abundant in iron, fatty acids, vitamin C, folate, and zinc. A cup of edamame contains 676 mg of potassium, as well (42).
Consuming a variety of these fruits and vegetables can maintain your daily potassium level.
Potassium is an important mineral and electrolyte in the body. Its roles in many bodily processes are impressive. Additionally, people who are struggling to lose weight can see tremendous benefits in maintaining potassium level in the body along with other health advantages.