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Is Your Diet Causing Deficiencies?…Potassium

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**A heads up – this is a lengthy post. But it contains a lot of good information.**

I hear a LOT about macronutrients these days. There is always a debate about what “diet” is better…high/low fat, high/low protein or high/low carb. My opinion…find a balance that makes you feel good. It’s pretty easy to keep tabs on your macronutrients. There are only three. But when it comes to micronutrients it gets a lot harder. In general if you eat a varied diet of balanced protein, fats and carbs and you eat enough calories you should get most of the nutrients you need. But what happens when you can’t eat the balanced diet you want with any choice of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, meat, etc.?

That is the dilemma I’ve been facing for quite some time. My diet has been restricted in various ways for the last seven or eight years. Currently my diet is quite restricted due to my own gut/intolerances and excluding foods that bother Abram. This is especially true when it comes to fruits and vegetables. This is problematic for getting all of the necessary micronutrients.

I’ve been curious about potassium for some time as I’ve narrowed down my list of foods that I absolutely must avoid. I wondered if they had anything in common. Some common denominator that would crack the case on some of my problems. And since bananas are my worst offender…and bananas are known to be high in potassium I wondered if there was a connection. But I didn’t do anything about it. Then a few weeks ago I did an experiment where I logged my meals for a few days. My intent was to count calories. But it also gives you a good overview of vitamins and minerals. The one thing that stood out to me day after day…Potassium is TOO LOW. Interesting. I hear about magnesium deficiency a lot. But I never hear anything about potassium.

So I did what I always do. I started researching. And I found lots of great information.

Here are some of the symptoms of potassium deficiency (also known as hypokalemia):
anxiety, depression, insomnia, constipation, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney stones, thyroid problems, arthritis, obesity, headaches, pain in the eyes, muscle spasms, “restless leg syndrome,” fatigue, muscle tension, edema, irritability and dry skin.

What role does potassium play in our bodies? Quite a bit actually. “Potassium is a mineral that helps maintain the water and acid balance in blood and tissue cells, assists in muscle building, and transmits electrical signals between cells and nerves. Potassium is also necessary for bone health, as it prevents the alkaline compounds found in bones from being used up by the body’s natural metabolic acids; low potassium is associated with an increased risk for osteoporosis. The mineral helps the body to use glucose, its main source of energy, so when this process isn’t working correctly, it can leave a person feeling run down. In addition to fatigue, when the muscles don’t have enough energy to work correctly, they can become weak and achy. As an electrolyte, potassium plays a key role in the movement of electrical impulses throughout the body. When a person has low potassium, those impulses may slow down or not travel as they should. This may lead to irritability, anxiety, confusion, and depression, which may only worsen when combined with other effects, like tiredness and weakness. Low potassium can also result in paralysis, as the mineral is essential for the transport of electrical signals that allow muscle movement. Paralysis can occur in any part of the body, but is particularly associated with the digestive system. When parts of this system become paralyzed, food cannot be digested properly, leading to stomach and intestinal cramps, constipation, and bloating.”(1)  “Potassium is the third most abundant mineral in the body. It is also an electrolyte that regulates blood pressure, water retention, muscle activity, and proper function of every cell in your body. Potassium helps the cells in the body eliminate toxic waste, promotes balanced pH levels, and increases energy.” (2)  Sounds pretty important to me!

Potassium does not work alone, though. It needs to be in balance with sodium, magnesium and calcium. Potassium is especially related to sodium, as they balance the fluids and electrolytes in and out of cells. So if you eat a high sodium diet, but low potassium it could cause big problems…and that is exactly what I’ve been doing. I eat a LOT of salt. I love salt. And in general I think it’s healthy as long as you are using unrefined sea salt that contains lots of minerals. But of course you can have too much of a good thing. I am also likely deficient in magnesium. And magnesium helps your body utilize potassium. So far things don’t sound too good for me 😛

So far I’ve talked about simply not eating enough foods with potassium. But what else can cause a deficiency? One of the biggest culprits is certain medications…one of them being laxatives. I’ve been taking miralax for 6 years now! Laxatives prevent your body from absorbing all of the nutrients from your food. Strike two for me.

Stress and anxiety can cause magnesium deficiency…which contributes to potassium deficiency.

My blood pressure is often low. And when I do yoga I always get headaches. I think it is related to my blood pressure. This could also be caused by my sodium/potassium balance.

I also get severe swelling (edema) during pregnancy. And after my son was born (over a year ago!) I don’t think it ever went away completely. I still feel like my ankles are mildly swollen every day. It could be related to potassium and balanced sodium levels.

I already know I have a leaky gut that prevents me from utilizing all of the nutrients in the food I eat. Top that off with a full time breastfeeding child for over a year that has priority when it comes to the vitamins and minerals in your body…and doesn’t care if it depletes your stores.

Where does that leave me? Not in good shape. I don’t eat enough potassium rich foods. I eat a lot of sodium, which means I need more potassium. I’m low in magnesium…which prevents my body from utilizing all of the potassium I do consume. Plus my body doesn’t absorb half of what I do eat. Plus my son gets a lot of what my body does have. Now what??

The RDA of potassium for an adult is 4700 mg. For a breastfeeding woman it is 5100 mg. When you look into the potassium content of food you’ll see that 5100 mg is a LOT. It’s hard to consume that much even if you are utilizing all of it. And that is the minimum you should get in a day.

I can’t eat a lot of foods that are really high in potassium. But there are some that I do tolerate. To demonstrate just how tough it would be to consume enough potassium I’ll give a sample of what I would have to eat in a day. I’ll be very generous and say my body is utilizing 75% of what I consume (even though I think it’s probably more like 50% or less). That would mean I need more than 7500 mg of potassium a day to get my daily minimum. This is what I would have to consume to reach that amount (eating only foods that I tolerate):

Potassium content:
1/2 avocado = 450
1/4 cup raisins = 310
5 dates = 500
1/2 cup orange juice = 236
1 cup cantaloupe = 494
10 dried apricots = 800
1 cup yogurt = 400
1 peach = 193
1 Tbsp. cocoa = 76
1/2 cup pumpkin = 282
1/2 cup zucchini = 173
3 oz. salmon = 319
1 egg = 55
1 cup milk = 400
Daily Diet:
2 avocados (900)
1/2 cup raisins (620)
10 dates (1000)
1 cup OJ (470)
1 cup cantaloupe (500)
10 apricots (800)
2 cups yogurt (800)
1 peach (193)
2 Tbsp. cocoa (150)
2 cups pumpkin (550)
2 cups zucchini (350)
6 oz. salmon (600)
6 eggs (325)
2 cups milk (800)
total: 8058 mg

That is a lot of food! And it hardly even includes vegetables. It doesn’t contain any grains. It doesn’t contain any added fat (I consume a lot of coconut oil, EVOO and butter each day). It is definitely not what I would normally consume in a day for a good balance. Plus I probably need a lot more than 7500 mg to compensate for a deficiency and a leaky gut and breastfeeding and laxatives. Just these foods would be about 3265 calories. Add extra fat on top and it’s more like 3600 calories (at least). Add in any more vegetables and grains and it’s more like 4000 calories. Way more than I could ever eat in day. Plus it has 80 grams of fiber! I try to eat fairly low fiber to go easy on my gut. This doesn’t seem like a doable thing for me.

For the last two weeks I have been trying to add more of these high potassium foods into my diet. And in general I have been doing pretty well the last couple of weeks. I try to eat yogurt, avocado, raisins, dates and cocoa daily. Plus I often eat salmon, zucchini, pumpkin, eggs and milk. I have also been drinking some orange juice lately. I rarely drink juice. I don’t think it has much nutritional value. And if I do drink juice it’s always grape juice…my favorite 🙂  But I’ve really been craving orange juice. Maybe it’s one more sign that I need potassium…and maybe even more vitamin C.

Although I’m sure adding high potassium foods into my diet is helpful, I don’t think it will be enough. I am currently researching potassium supplements. It seems strange to me that the RDA of potassium is 4700 mg, but most vitamins and supplements only contain trace amounts. My multivitamin has a lot more than 100% RDA for many vitamins and minerals, but only 5 mg (.1%) of potassium. So I’m looking for a supplement that actually has enough potassium in it. I might also start supplementing magnesium again. And trying to cut back on salt a little bit.

I am also going to contact my doctor to see if I can get a blood test to check some of my vitamin and mineral levels to be sure I’m not way off.

One thing I am still curious about is if my body is truly intolerant of my no-no foods that are mostly high potassium foods. Or if my body is so low in potassium that when I eat foods that contain a lot it holds on to them and sucks out every last drop of minerals…slowing down digestion. If I ate a large amount of some of my problem foods would I tolerate them better since my body wouldn’t feel deprived anymore? I don’t know. And at this point I’m not brave enough to try since it could cause major problems.

Obviously I have a lot of experimenting and researching to do yet. I know that two weeks of diet adjustment and feeling some improvements does not mean it will be good long term. This is an ongoing process. But I think that increasing my potassium levels could really help. It is also a good reminder that eating the same foods day after day (either because they “work” for you or just because you like them) can contribute to deficiencies. Variety and balance can help ensure that you get all of the vitamins and minerals you need.

How do you find balance in your diet, especially with a restricted diet? Do you follow the GAPS diet or a paleo diet or even a gluten free diet? Could you be deficient in potassium? Or maybe a whole group of micronutrients? Even with the “best” diet you could easily be deficient. Have you ever been tested or thought about getting tested? The more I read the more I think it’s a very worthwhile tool in the search for improved health. Do you know of good supplements? Has anyone tried Nutreince?
This post is linked to Fight Back Friday and Fresh Bites Friday and Fat Tuesday and Real Food Wednesday.

(1) wiseGEEK
(2) Natural News


  1. The Voogts says:

    I’ve never used coconut water…yet 🙂 I’ve been meaning to try. Yes, I think bone broth is a good source as well. I have some daily. But when you are deficient it’s still hard to get enough with just that.

  2. Sara says:

    I think asking your doctor to run a blood test for your vitamins, minerals, macro/micro nutrients is a good starting point. That way you’ll really know what is going on. That is a crazy amount of food to obtain the needed potassium, wow! Did you read anything about getting too much potassium? My grandma was on potassium pills for awhile before she died, but it seems like I remember her mentioning a strong caution from her doctor about getting too much and the harm it could do… but I don’t remember what those effects were…

    Coconut water is pretty good. I drink it occasionally, have for quite awhile now.

  3. The Voogts says:

    Yes, Sara, I have read about too much potassium…which can be dangerous. But I think you’d need a lot to reach that. If I take a supplement I’m not going to take huge amounts. I’m just trying to get it up towards normal. But it’s also why I want to talk to my doctor first. I am also researching so that if I do end up supplementing I can use a good one instead of something synthetic my doctor might prescribe.

    Where do you get your coconut water? I hear it’s great for hydration. I want to try some.

  4. Robin says:

    Interesting article on potassium. I’ve actually been seeing a naturopath lately, and he had me do a hair sample/analysis which came back low in potassium (among other things). He had me start using the NOW brand potassium powder, and I didn’t research it, just trusted him on it, but he did say that using that was the best way to get a lot of potassium into a person fairly quickly. He wanted me to take 1/4 tsp daily, and I found that VERY hard to do, as it is in bulk powder form and tastes really nasty (I tried mixing it into all kinds of things, but the overwhelming salty/mineral taste was just too much). So, I finally broke down and bought those little empty capsules and went thru the mind-numbing process of making my own capsules, lol.

    I think at some point we will probably send in another hair sample to re-check my levels, so I’ll be interested to see how they look. I’ve also been using the magnesium oil off and on, as I am sure I am deficient in that as well, but my magnesium levels showed rather high on my hair sample. Then I remembered that I had used the mag oil after showering and promptly proceeded to snip some hair for my sample, so I’m quite sure my fingers (and hair) were probably well saturated in the mag oil :-).

  5. Robin says:

    Just wanted to comment that I was just reading thru some of the other info on your blog, and I thought maybe I should mention that the reason I am seeing the above-mentioned naturopath is to help with ocd :-). So yes, we probably have a lot in common. I found it interesting that you even mentioned a book, because there aren’t that many books written on the subject from a personal point of view, and I have had the exact same thought myself. You can find lots of clinical-type books on the subject, but nothing that really gives you the perspective of someone dealing with the issue.

    Also, just happy to see a natural food blogger who has actually dealt with it, because it seems like any info on treating ocd comes down to two things, taking meds and exposure therapy. I did take meds for about a year but was never comfortable with that option. And, exposure therapy is not something that works very well for me for many reasons. When I started investigating nutritional issues that might be involved, I got really excited, as it finally felt like I may have found some answers. Anyway, mostly just wanted to say that I am so glad I found your blog! 🙂

  6. Mary Voogt says:

    Thanks so much for commenting,Robin! I hope you can get some good information here. I’ve tried a lot over the years. I too have tried exposure therapy…it has helped to a degree. But not completely. My kids are my best exposure therapy 😛 They don’t care about my ocd/schedule/etc. I don’t really care for meds, either. I’ve tried some, but didn’t like them. They usally are ok at first then start to make things even worse from side effects. Real food and natural treatment is the way I want to go. I still have a ways to go, though. I figure more and more out over time.

    I think one of my biggest helps has been cognitive behavioral therapy with a psychologist. It really helps to talk things through. Writing has also been a huge help for me…to get the thoughts out of my head.

    Thanks for your information about potassium. Let me know if you get your levels checked again and see improvement. I’d love to hear about it!

    I hope you stop by again.

  7. Robin says:

    Hi Mary-you are now on my favorites list, so I will definitely be reading! I’ve thought for a long time that I’d love to see a natural foods blog that also talked about ocd, as like I said above, there just isn’t anything like that out there. And now I found it! Although, I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, so at the same time, I am so sorry you are dealing it as well. It is a terrible way to live. I have actually been seeing a hypnotherapist off and on for a while, although we have done mostly “talk” therapy so far, as I am in kind of a complicated situation due to the ocd (very long story which I don’t mind sharing but would take up a lot of space here!), so I have to get some external things “dealt with” before really dealing head on with the ocd. But, I’m getting there.

    I also find it interesting that you talk a alot about your past food/anorexia issues and equate that to your ocd, because I’ve thought for a long time that many addiction-type issues are essentially just all ocd, whether it’s an eating disorder, hoarding, etc. My issues revolve around the need to be really clean (and I’ve spent hours/days at a time without sleep, food, etc. cleaning the house and even had to find a new home for our cats because of this), but I also have a friend who has dealt with some eating disorder issues in the past. When I tried talking to her about what I was dealing with, she responded to me that it was exactly the same for her with food, so essentially the same mind patterns, just centered around different things (mine with being clean, dirt, germs, etc, hers with food, counting calories, etc.). I don’t think many people make this connection and see them all as different issues.

    And no, we are not alone! It’s hard to remember this sometimes, as it’s hard to imagine anyone out there who can relate (as my therapist tells me constantly, the only way someone else can really understand is if they are also dealing with it), so it’s always nice to find someone who understands! I have really had to work on not trying to explain myself too much to my family and friends also, as it really is an exercise in frustration. They will never “get it”, and I have to remember that that is a good thing, but it does make you feel very alone sometimes.

    I will definitely be interested to see which nutritional approaches seem to help you. Do you feel like GAPS specifically helped much with your ocd or was that mainly to address your physical/stomach issues? I have wondered about attempting that but it’s pretty intense/extreme, so I would rather not go that route if I don’t have to. My naturopath has me on a few supplements to help with digestion (and which have actually seemed to helped quite a bit in that regard), so I’m hoping that will be enough, but it all takes time, so we’ll see. I’ll keep you posted! 🙂

  8. Mary Voogt says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Robin. If you ever need to “talk” feel free to email me (mary dot voogt at gmail dot com).

    I can totally relate about my family not getting it. I gave up a long time ago trying to explain things or hoping they would understand. They always seem to think I’m being selfish or stubborn or something. It’s hard and hurtful at times. But it is what it is.

    It’s hard to say what GAPS helped with. At times I thought it helped with OCD. But then I started getting too obsessive about what I could and couldn’t eat that it made it worse. I’ve done better being a bit more relaxed about my diet. I do think that the GAPS guidelines are good. I still follow them to a degree, especially trying to get bone broth in my diet daily. I try not to go overboard with grains, but I do eat some (I seem to mainly tolerate white rice and wheat). I need to find balance. GAPS helped me pinpoint problem foods and learn more about my body and what I do and don’t tolerate. It was kind of like doing an elimination diet. If you ever do try GAPS and want some tips/cautions let me know. If I were to do it again I’d approach it differently. If nothing else reading the book gives good information.

    If you don’t mind sharing, what supplements do you use? If I could get my digestion on track my OCD would be so greatly reduced. Not gone, but greatly improved.

  9. Kira says:

    I just thought I’d mention that magnesium supplementation can work like a laxative. I like the Calm magnesium. Most of my kids like it too. Good luck!

  10. Mary Voogt says:

    Thanks, Kira. I’ve done some mag supplementation in the past (both oil and drops). But I didn’t really notice much difference. I’ll have to look into Calm Mag.

  11. Sara says:

    Mary, I usually just buy coconut water at the health food store. I saw it at Kroger the other week, too. Its cheaper to order through Amazon, though. I just haven’t gone that route yet.

  12. As far as diet goes, I have been blessed to have someone in my business group that has a natural nutrition store, and LOTS of knowledge. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it before, but there is a book called “Eating for your blood type”. I have started to follow those directions for my Type A blood, and I have not had any problem with irritable bowel, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion or weariness and fatigue. Oh, and I’ve lost 40 pounds in 5 months!!

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