08/22/2011 05:16 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2011

Summer Days, Healthy Hearts & Potassium

As we breeze through our summers with relaxing evenings and lazy weekend getaways, we may think that drinking enough water is our only health concern. We keep ourselves hydrated at the beach, and before and during exercise. This summer, with record-breaking heat throughout the nation, we need to be aware of other health issues.

Besides drinking water, we need to pay more attention to our electrolyte levels. Athletes, those working outdoors and the elderly should focus on their intake of salt and potassium. Signs of low potassium include muscle fatigue and sensitivity to heat -- a notable issue in hot and humid weather. For those high-risk groups, choosing sodium-filled sports drinks and salty snacks, along with fresh fruits and vegetables high in potassium, will keep electrolytes at healthy levels.

In addition to maintaining our bodies' water balance, a recent study has confirmed other effects potassium has on our health! A review from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology(1) linked increased potassium intake to a 21 percent reduced risk of stroke. The study also stated that higher potassium diets may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular diseases. These results lend support for diets high in potassium.

Excellent sources of potassium are fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy -- all of which are part of a healthy diet! Filling our plates with more fresh, whole foods and less processed foods will help us increase the potassium in our diets. The DASH plan has touted the cardiovascular benefits of low-sodium and high-potassium diets for years. Other studies associate additional benefits with high-potassium diets. High-potassium diets have positive effects on bone mineral density(2). Low-potassium diets have been linked to an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes(3). I believe that many Americans could benefit from increasing this nutrient in their meal plans. However, for those with impaired kidney function or taking hypertension medications or diuretics, potassium intake should be limited to prevent cardiovascular issues.

The recommended intake of potassium for an average adult is 4,700 mg per day -- more than double the recommendation for sodium (2,300 mg for an average adult, 1,500 mg for adults with risk factors). Most people reach only half of their recommended potassium intake, as they choose processed, packaged foods over fresh, wholesome options. Selecting fruits and vegetables is a nutritious choice that will increase overall health and your diet's potassium to beat the heat and help your heart!

Some of the best sources are:

Potato, medium baked with skin: 925 mg
Spinach, cooked, 1 cup: 800 mg
Avocado, cubed, 1 cup: 730 mg
White beans, canned, ½ cup: 595 mg
Yogurt, plain, 8 oz: 580 mg
Medium sweet potato with skin: 540 mg
Broccoli, 1 cup: 460 mg
Banana, medium: 420 mg
Cantaloupe, 1 cup cubed: 430 mg
Lentil, ½ cup cooked: 365 mg

1 D'Elia L, Barba G, Cappuccio FP, Strazzullo P., "Potassium intake, stroke, and cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of prospective studies" J Am Coll Cardiol. 2011 March 8; 57 (10):1210-9.
2 Karp HJ, Ketola ME, Lamberg-Allardt CJ. Acute effects of calcium carbonate, calcium citrate and potassium citrate on markers of calcium and bone metabolism in young women. Br J Nutr. 2009 November 102(9):1341-7.
3 Chatterjee R, Yeh HC, Shafi T, Selvin E, Anderson C, Pankow JS, Miller E, Brancati F. Serum and dietary potassium and risk of incident type 2 diabetes mellitus: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. Arch Intern Med. 2010 October 170(19):1745-51.