People tend to be most concerned with nutrients that most younger people aren’t at risk of being deficient in, like vitamin B12 or protein. If you eat animal protein or a very well-planned vegetarian diet and are under the age of 60, you’re likely OK on these two. What you’re probably not OK on is magnesium and potassium, though, and that’s a huge deal. Consider that fewer than 2% of Americans meet the daily recommendation for potassium – less than 2%! Potassium is crucial for good health because it:
- controls the electrical activity of the heart
- regulates acid-base balance and normal water balance
- has a significant impact on muscle contraction and appears to protect against muscle wasting
- decreases blood pressure and arterial stiffness (which leads to heart attack, stroke, and dementia if left unchecked)
- plays a role in bone health
- helps to prevent kidney stones
- is essential for nerve transmission and function
What’s especially upsetting about the fact that potassium intake is so low in the Standard American Diet (SAD) is that it’s packaged with lots of other essential nutrients. Potassium-rich foods include bananas, cantaloupe, oranges, peaches, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, leafy greens, milk, whole grains, nuts, beans, and salmon (among others). Hit the produce aisle hard if you want to improve your potassium intake. Potassium deficiency symptoms include bone fragility, muscle weakness and cramping, tingling or numbness of the extremities, abnormal psychological behavior, fatigue, and sterility.
A whopping 75% of Americans are magnesium deficient. Magnesium is thought to aid in treating many disorders, including fibromyalgia, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, migraines, and hypertension. It’s important because it:
- helps to keep the cells of your muscles and nerves working well
- helps to maintain normal blood glucose and insulin levels
- helps to regulate blood pressure
- helps to keep your heart rate steady
- plays a role in immunity
- assists in maintaining bone health
- aids us in combatting stress
Magnesium can be found in green vegetables, beets, bananas, potatoes and sweet potatoes, beans, nuts, whole grains, fish, tofu, milk, and soybeans (among others).
Symptoms of magnesium deficiency are similar to those of potassium deficiency. They include nausea, fatigue, trouble sleeping, irritability, pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling of the extremities, muscle contraction and cramps, heart arrhythmia, and personality changes. I don’t know about you, but a lot of the people that I talk to complain of similar symptoms daily. We chalk a lot of pain (like back or hip pain), insomnia, anxiety and irritability, and fatigue up to a high-stress lifestyle, which is pretty spot-on because magnesium helps us handle stress better. Instead of pharmaceuticals, maybe we just need more oatmeal or green vegetables, for example.
Magnesium deficiency is associated with low levels of potassium in the blood, and severe magnesium deficiency can result in low levels of calcium. Magnesium, potassium, and calcium are cornerstones of the ultra-healthy DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), widely regarded as the healthiest diet of all.
I wondered what someone would have to eat in a day to meet their potassium and magnesium requirements. The diet below would provide enough potassium (4731 mg; both males and females over the age of 14 years need 4,700 mg a day) and more than enough magnesium (541 mg; a woman between the ages of 31 and 70 need 320 mg a day, and a male of the same age needs 420 mg a day).
Breakfast: 2 slices whole-wheat toast with 2 Tablespoons of peanut butter, one orange, 1 cup of milk
Snack: 1-ounce pistachios and a medium banana
Lunch: A grilled chicken and strawberry salad, a container of low-fat yogurt, and 1 ounce of sunflower seeds
Dinner: 3 oz pork tenderloin, 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, 1/2 cup cooked spinach, and one medium sweet potato
Snack: 1 cup of cantaloupe
When I look at that, it seems pretty doable to me, and I hope that you feel the same. People who eat a lot of processed foods or consume large amounts of alcohol are quite likely to be deficient in a slew of nutrients, including both of these essential minerals. People who drink a lot of coffee or soda, or eat a lot of salt, are especially likely to be magnesium deficient.
One important note: people who have kidney disease or take blood pressure medications such as ACE inhibitors should find out from a doctor if they should avoid high-potassium foods.