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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, though, 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, primarily because they don’t eat enough plants.

Why do we care? A review of all the best studies ever done on potassium intake and it’s relationship to two of our top killers, stroke and heart disease, was recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. A 1600 mg 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 video pick above. 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). Is it worth going out of our way to eat plants with the most antioxidants? See Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants to find out.

In health,
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 year-in-review presentation Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death.

Image credit: Public Domain Photos / Flickr

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Read more: Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, General Health, Health, Heart & Vascular Disease, Videos, , ,

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at


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8:45PM PST on Mar 4, 2015

eating bananas makes me feel better

8:53AM PST on Jan 4, 2014

I have the opposite problem- I was high in potassium on my last blood test a few months ago. I am 61 yo and was fine on everything else. I eat a vegetarian diet (high percentage home-grown) but sometimes cheat with seafood (once a month). My Doctor said it was no big deal but I had the feeling that he didn't know how to interpret it. Is this a concern?

12:53PM PDT on Apr 29, 2013

Hi Melinda K, you are right this would be better with a list of foods, I found one here though and the info goes really well with the info here:

7:12AM PST on Jan 22, 2013

And I certainly do not believe that 98% of Americans are potassium deficient.

7:11AM PST on Jan 22, 2013

This doctor speaks as if the average American knows absolutely nothing about diet and nutrition. Well, doctor we are not all 3rd grade intelligent when it comes to knowledge about a healthy diet. As a vegetarian and vegan I had to dig up this information back in the late 70's and figure out how to combine beans, rice and vegetables into healthy meals that included everything necessary for a healthy body. And I followed that old adage, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. For the past thirty or so years, I've eaten more than 370 apples a year, not counting apple compote, pie and the ones in my veggie stuffing at holidays. I have also taken a multivitamin since I was a child when my Dad would hand them out at breakfast. There are many people like me who don't eat junk and have more than a passing knowledge of health. I must say listening to him cavalierly misstate what was printed (as if the information behind his words were too difficult to comprehend) and the slight sarcasm in his voice did not attract me. I went on his website, and consider this video to be more of an infomercial than anything else. The fact that he didn't speak about the benefits of organic fruits and vegetables also turned me off. Oh, raspberries to you doctor.

1:29PM PST on Jan 21, 2013

"Greens, beans, and dates" high on the list? I thought for a moment of combining 'em with the 1st-ranking tomatoes in an exotic sort of casserole, but maybe that's not necessary.

12:00AM PST on Jan 20, 2013

It would have been nice if that info were all on this page, rather than having to chase down 7 other pages at different sites to see what is better.

Aside from lowering strokes, why else is a potassium rich diet good for? It's also heart healthy, good for your kidneys, and more.

According to WebMD, potatoes and tomatoes are great for potassium, also. Don't forget to eat the skin, where the potassium is highest.

And of course, if you take a water pill, they will also give you potassium tablets to take, because excess urination can lower your levels. Low potassium levels can also lead to muscle pain & weakness, as well as other problems. If you need a laxative, you may need to up the potassium level as well.

9:56PM PST on Jan 16, 2013

Thank you.

5:07AM PST on Jan 15, 2013


3:33PM PST on Jan 14, 2013

Would love to see the whole list of foods here.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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