Potassium is a mineral that your body needs to work properly. It is a type of electrolyte.
Potassium is a very important mineral for the human body.
Your body needs potassium to:
- Build proteins
- Break down and use carbohydrates
- Build muscle
- Maintain normal body growth
- Control the electrical activity of the heart
- Control the acid-base balance
Many foods contain potassium. All meats (red meat and chicken) and fish such as salmon, cod, flounder, and sardines are good sources of potassium. Soy products and veggie burgers are also good sources of potassium.
Vegetables including broccoli, peas, lima beans, tomatoes, potatoes (especially their skins), sweet potatoes, and winter squash are all good sources of potassium.
Fruits that contain significant amounts of potassium include citrus fruits, cantaloupe, bananas, kiwi, prunes, and apricots. Dried apricots contain more potassium than fresh apricots.
Milk, yogurt, and nuts are also excellent sources of potassium.
People with kidney problems, especially those on dialysis, should not eat too many potassium-rich foods. The doctor or nurse will recommend a special diet.
Having too much or too little potassium in the body can cause serious health problems.
A low blood level of potassium is called hypokalemia. It can cause weak muscles, abnormal heart rhythms, and a slight rise in blood pressure. You may have hypokalemia if you:
- Take diuretics (water pills) to treat high blood pressure or heart failure
- Take too many laxatives
- Have severe or prolonged vomiting and diarrhea
- Have certain kidney or adrenal gland disorders
Too much potassium in the blood is known as hyperkalemia. It may cause abnormal and dangerous heart rhythms. Some common causes include:
- Poor kidney function
- Heart medicines called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin 2 receptor blockers (ARBs)
- Potassium-sparing diuretics (water pills) such as spironolactone or amiloride
- Severe infection
The Food and Nutrition Center of the Institute of Medicine recommends these dietary intakes for potassium, based on age:
- 0 - 6 months: 0.4 grams a day (g/day)
- 7 - 12 months: 0.7 g/day
Children and Adolescents
- 1 - 3 years: 3 g/day
- 4 - 8 years: 3.8 g/day
- 9 - 13 years: 4.5 g/day
- 14 - 18 years: 4.7 g/day
- Age 19 and older: 4.7 g/day
Women who are producing breast milk need slightly higher amounts (5.1 g/day). Ask your doctor what amount is best for you.
People who are being treated for hypokalemia need potassium supplements. Your health care provider will develop a supplementation plan based on your specific needs.
Diet - potassium
Seifter JL. Potassium disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 119.
United States Department of Agriculture. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 2010. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2010.
Update Date 5/13/2014
Updated by: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.