If you have ever seen an athlete go down with a leg cramp, you have probably heard someone say "Give them a banana!". This is because the sunshine colored fruit is an immediate source of potassium.
Potassium is a an essential mineral, that our bodies cannot produce on it's own, but need for proper function. The functioning properties of this mineral include regulating blood pressure by offsetting sodium effects, balancing fluids and minerals in and out of cells, and helping muscles contract. A potassium rich diet can also aid in preventing reoccurring kidney stones (1).
Potassium is also a type of electrolyte. Similar to the main purposes of potassium, electrolytes are beneficial in balancing hydration status, acid/base levels, increasing nutrients inside of cells, excreting waste from cells, and provide basic functions of muscles, nerves, the heart and brain. Other electrolytes include sodium, magnesium, calcium, chlorine and phosphate. You will notice these minerals on the nutrition labels of sports drinks. Those electrolyte filled drinks' purpose is to replace electrolyte levels after a serious sweat session, not just for a hangover.
Working up a sweat causes us to lose electrolytes. When electrolyte levels are low, this can lead to dehydration and muscle cramps. A depletion in potassium levels especially cause cramps, due to it's role in muscle contractions. It is important to keep up with hydration and a balanced diet to ensure proper nutrient levels.
If you haven't heard yet, the FDA is in the early stages of changing our nutrition labels. Potassium is seen as one of the nutrients Americans are lowest in, along with vitamin D, calcium and iron. These four nutrients are requirements of the label, making it easier to increase our levels.
Now let's get to the fun part, potassium sources! Yes, bananas are usually the first food to come to mind. But there are plenty of sources out there to increase those levels. The recommended intake of potassium is 4,700mg, almost double the amount we actually consume (1). Other sources of potassium foods include
potatoes (medium size, with the skin) - 919mg
spinach - 835mg/1 C cooked
broccoli - 535mg/1 C cooked, chopped
cantaloupe - 473 mg/1 C balls
tomatoes - 427mg/1 C chopped
milk - (skim-whole) 322-382mg/ 1 C
One medium banana contains 422mg of potassium and is a great source of energy producing carbohydrates, at 27g. Since potassium is also a part of the carbohydrate metabolism process, a banana is a quick go-to for muscle cramps in athletes. As we learned, the potassium aids in muscle contractions, while the carbs give a burst of energy.
So the next time your muscles feel a little crampy, push the fluids and reach for the potassium filled foods, K!? (See what I did there?)
Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN, T. (2017). What Is Potassium?. [online] www.eatright.org. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/vitamins-and-supplements/types-of-vitamins-and-nutrients/potassium [Accessed 8 Nov. 2017].