Potassium is one of the most important minerals a human can get. It keeps your heart healthy, helps your muscles function properly and keeps your bones strong.
We get plenty of potassium from eating fruits and vegetables, but unfortunately, a lot of these foods come in high-potassium, yet low potassium versions.
Knowing which foods are high in potassium and which ones are low, is very important so we don’t end up consuming too much, or too little of it.
Why are potassium levels important?
The main job of the kidneys is to clean your blood of excess fluids and waste products.
When functioning normally, these fist-sized powerhouses can filter 120–150 quarts of blood each day, producing 1 to 2 quarts of urine.
This helps prevent waste buildup in the body. It also helps keep electrolytes, such as sodium, phosphate, and potassium at stable levels.
People with kidney disease have diminished renal function.
They’re typically unable to regulate potassium efficiently. This can cause hazardous levels of potassium to remain in the blood.
Some medications used to treat kidney disease also raise potassium, which can add to the problem.
High potassium levels usually develop slowly over weeks or months. This can lead to feelings of fatigue or nausea.
If your potassium spikes suddenly, you may experience difficulty breathing, chest pain, or heart palpitations. If you begin experiencing these symptoms, call your local emergency services.
This condition, called hyperkalemia, requires immediate medical care.
Who is in danger?
Although your body needs potassium, having too much in your blood can be harmful. It can lead to serious heart problems. Having too much potassium in your body is called “hyperkalemia.” You may be at risk for hyperkalemia if you:
- Have kidney disease. It is the job of your kidneys to keep the right amount of potassium in your body. If there is too much, healthy kidneys will filter out the extra potassium, and remove it from your body through urine. However, when kidneys do not work well, they may not be able to remove enough potassium. This means that potassium can build up in your blood to harmful levels.
- Eat a diet high in potassium. Eating too much food that is high in potassium can also cause hyperkalemia, especially in people with advanced kidney disease. Foods such as melons, orange juice, and bananas are high in potassium.
- Take certain drugs that prevent the kidneys from losing enough potassium. Some drugs can keep your kidneys from removing enough potassium. This can cause your potassium levels to rise. Discuss all medicines that you take with your doctor. Do not stop taking any medicine on your own.
- Taking extra potassium, such as a salt substitute or certain supplements.
- Have a disorder called “Addison’s disease,” which can occur if your body does not make enough of certain hormones. Hormones are chemicals produced by different glands and organs, including the kidneys, to trigger certain responses in your body.
- Have poorly controlled diabetes.
- Experience a serious injury or severe burn.
How can I tell if I have a high potassium level?
A simple blood test can find the level of potassium in your blood. If you are at risk, be sure you ask your healthcare provider about a blood test for potassium.
Many people with high potassium have few, if any, symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they are usually mild and non-specific.
You may feel some muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, nausea, or other unusual feelings. High potassium usually develops slowly over many weeks or months, and is most often mild. It can recur.
For most people, the level of potassium in your blood should be between 3.5 and 5.0, depending on the laboratory that is used.
If high potassium happens suddenly and you have very high levels, you may feel heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, or vomiting.
This is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical care. If you have these symptoms, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
Avoiding high-potassium meals
People with chronic kidney disease or CKD should avoid or limit foods that are high in potassium.
High-potassium levels can cause serious symptoms, including an irregular heartbeat and muscle cramping. Low-potassium levels can cause muscles to become weak.
A doctor or dietitian can help explain the right amount of potassium to consume for each person’s unique situation.
Most foods have potassium. To keep your levels low, avoid or eat less than a half-cup a day of these high-potassium foods:
- Dried fruit
- Honeydew melon
- Oranges and orange juice
- Pomegranate and pomegranate juice
- Prunes and prune juice
- Acorn squash, butternut squash, Hubbard squash
- Baked beans, black beans, refried beans
- Broccoli (cooked)
- Brussels sprouts
- Onions (fried)
- Potatoes (white and sweet)
- Spinach (cooked)
- Tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste
- Vegetable juice
Other high-potassium foods:
- Bran products
- Creamed soups
- French fries
- Ice cream
- Milk (buttermilk, chocolate, eggnog evaporated, malted, soy and milkshakes)
- Peanut butter
- Potato chips
- Salt substitutes
Additions of low-potassium meals
Low-potassium foods are a safer option for people with CKD. According to the American Kidney Foundation, a potassium-restricted diet allows for 2,000 milligrams of potassium daily.
However, a doctor or dietitian is in the best position to advise a person on their individual needs.
There are plenty of foods that are low in potassium. For these foods, a half cup is the recommended serving size.
Eating more than one serving can turn a low potassium option into a high potassium snack, so it is essential to stay within the recommended guidelines.
The list of high-potassium foods may feel a bit overwhelming, but remember, for every high-potassium food to avoid, there’s at least one low-potassium food to enjoy.
The recommended serving size for these low-potassium foods is 1/2 cup. You don’t want to overdo it. Too much of a low-potassium food makes it a high-potassium food.
- Apples (plus apple juice and applesauce)
- Fruit cocktail
- Grapes and grape juice
- Mandarin oranges
- Pineapple and pineapple juice
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Asparagus (6 raw spears)
- Broccoli (raw or cooked from frozen)
- Carrots (cooked)
- Celery (1 stalk)
- Corn (half an ear if it’s on the cob)
- Green beans or wax beans
- White mushrooms (raw)
- Peas (green)
- Water chestnuts
- Yellow squash and zucchini
People should not cut out potassium entirely, as it is an essential nutrient that helps manage many of the body’s functions.
Potassium has many essential roles in the body, including:
- helping the muscles contract
- maintaining electrolyte balance
- regulating blood pressure
- keeping the heart functioning correctly
- aiding in waste removal
- promoting cell growth and health
- delivering oxygen to the brain
- stabilizing the metabolic process
How can I reduce my potassium buildup?
One of the best ways to reduce potassium buildup is to make dietary changes. To do that, you’ll need to learn which foods are high in potassium and which are low. Be sure to do your research and read the nutritional labels on your food.
Keep in mind that it isn’t just what you eat that counts, but also how much you eat. Portion control is important to the success of any kidney-friendly diet. Even a food that’s considered low in potassium can spike your levels if you eat too much of it.
Foods to add to your diet
Foods are considered low in potassium if they contain 200 milligrams (mg) or less per serving.
Some low-potassium foods include:
- berries, such as strawberries and blueberries
- cranberries and cranberry juice
- green beans
- white rice
- white pasta
- white bread
- egg whites
- canned tuna in water
Foods to limit or avoid
The following foods contain over 200 mg per serving.
Limit high-potassium foods such as:
- prunes and prune juice
- oranges and orange Juice
- tomatoes, tomato juice, and tomato sauce
- Brussels sprouts
- split peas
- potatoes (regular and sweet)
- dried apricots
- bran products
- low-sodium cheese
Although reducing intake of potassium-rich foods is important for those on potassium restricted diets, keeping total potassium intake under the limit set by your healthcare provider, which is typically 2,000 mg of potassium per day or less, is most important.
Depending on your kidney function, you may be able to include small amounts of foods higher in potassium in your diet. Consult your healthcare provider if you have questions about your potassium restriction.
How do I get some of the potassium out of my favorite high-potassium vegetables?
The process of leaching will help pull potassium out of some high-potassium vegetables. It is important to remember that leaching will not pull all of the potassium out of the vegetable. You must still limit the amount of leached high-potassium vegetables you eat. Ask your dietitian about the amount of leached vegetables that you can safely have in your diet.
How to leach vegetables.
For Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Carrots, Beets, Winter Squash, and Rutabagas:
- Peel and place the vegetable in cold water so they won’t darken.
- Slice vegetable 1/8 inch thick.
- Rinse in warm water for a few seconds.
- Soak for a minimum of two hours in warm water. Use ten times the amount of water to the number of vegetables. If soaking longer, change the water every four hours.
- Rinse under warm water again for a few seconds.
- Cook vegetables with five times the amount of water to the number of vegetables.