Last fall I took my favorite class so far of my Nutrition program: Medical Nutrition Therapy. In 16 weeks, I got a fascinating overview of the effect of diet on health and disease. But truth be told, 16 weeks is a pretty tight window of time in which to digest everything there is to know about such a broad topic, so sometimes certain information got a bit glossed over. One morning during one such lecture, the instructor touched briefly on the major mineral potassium and a few of its functions in the body. I mainly remember her saying with an eye roll, “And you can’t tell patients, ‘Just go eat a banana!’” Hahaha, we all chuckled in agreement. Those ignoramuses who think potassium is only found in bananas!
Thing is, um….I kind of am one of those ignoramuses.
I actually had no idea what other foods contain potassium, or really anything else about it. Since that lecture, it’s been on my mind. (Because when you major in nutrition, this is the kind of thing that stays on your mind.) So I set out to get educated about the major mineral that’s not just found in bananas. Turns out, it’s a critically important mineral for sustaining life. Let’s have a little chat with potassium, in Q & A format, just for fun.
Q: Thanks for joining us today, Potassium. Or should I call you Vitamin K?
A: Just Potassium. Vitamin K is actually a different micronutrient–though my symbol on the periodic table is K, so people sometimes get confused.
Q: Yeah, where does your K come from?
A: The “K” comes from “kalium,” a neo-Latin word that means “alkali.” I actually have a nickname, too.
Q: Do tell!
A: It’s a little embarrassing…
Q: Come on.
A: It’s “pot ash.” When I was first discovered as a unique element in 1807, I was obtained by putting the ash of burnt leaves in a pot.
Q: *Snickers, clears throat* I hear you’re considered one of the major minerals. Who else belongs to that club?
A: Yeah, it’s me, sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, sulfur, and chloride. It’s a pretty exclusive group.
Q: Tell me a little bit about what you do in the body.
A: Oh, where to begin? I’m kind of a big deal. All living cells have a little of me in them. I help regulate heartbeat and blood pressure, I’m necessary for muscle contraction, I keep bones healthy, I regulate electrolyte balance, and maintain healthy blood pH. Just to name a few.
Q: Wow, sounds like you’re a busy mineral. What happens if someone gets too much of you?
A: It’s pretty rare if you have healthy kidneys, but symptoms would include nausea, fatigue, and muscle weakness.
Q: How about if someone doesn’t get enough?
A: That’s a bit more common. Without enough potassium, you can develop irregular heartbeat, muscle weakness, glucose intolerance, and probably most prevalent, high blood pressure. That’s especially if you combine too little of me with too much of my friend sodium.
Q: So we definitely want to make sure we get enough of you. What are some food sources where you’re found? Other than bananas?
A: Well, believe it or not, I’m found in all unprocessed fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat. Some of the highest per-calorie sources include dried apricots, broccoli, carrots, tomato juice, strawberries, acorn squash, and artichokes. If you’re eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, you shouldn’t have a problem getting enough of me.
Q: Fantastic. One last question: if my eyelid won’t stop twitching, am I really supposed to eat something with potassium in it, or is that just an urban legend?
A: It certainly can’t hurt to try eating a fruit or vegetable with a lot of me in it, but more than likely that sort of thing is attributable to some other benign cause, like stress, too much caffeine, or lack of sleep.
Q: Good to know. Thanks, Potassium, for shedding some light on what you do and where you’re found!
A: No problem. See you at dinner.
Q: You got it, Pot Ash.