Magnesium, potassium and calcium are three important electrolyte minerals needed by every cell in your body. Although they're widespread in a healthy diet, if your meals consist of processed ingredients, you might not be getting enough foods high in magnesium and potassium, or even calcium.
Here's an overview of what these minerals do for your body and where to get them in your diet.
If you want to get more foods high in magnesium and calcium as well as potassium, skip processed and fast foods and eat a whole-foods diet with more fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
The Role of Electrolytes
Calcium, magnesium and potassium are electrolytes — minerals that have an electrical charge. They regulate and balance many different functions in every one of your cells. Some of their roles include maintaining the fluid balance in your body and allowing nutrients in and waste out of your cells.
Electrolytes also help balance the pH or acid/base level in your body and control the electrical impulses that regulate your heartbeat and help your muscles, nerves and the neurons in your brain to work properly.
In addition to their function as electrolytes, the minerals magnesium, potassium and calcium play important roles in preventing chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis by maintaining healthy blood pressure, blood sugar and strong bones.
These and other minerals act as co-factors to help run millions of chemical reactions in your body. They're like the gears in a machine, and without them, things start to break down. One of the reasons why a balanced diet is so important in maintaining good health is that it provides the vitamins and minerals that keep things running smoothly.
Potassium for Blood Pressure
Research on the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that a combination of whole foods rich in these minerals may help reduce blood pressure.
The DASH diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains and other foods high in magnesium and potassium. It also includes several servings of low-fat dairy foods that are great sources of calcium. While the combination of minerals from these foods is important, it's thought that the high potassium levels in this diet are responsible for its benefits.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, potassium helps counteract the effects of sodium. While a diet high in sodium tends to increase blood pressure, potassium-rich foods help lower it by relaxing the blood vessels and increasing the excretion of sodium from the body.
A January 2015 review published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that the DASH diet pattern was even more effective at reducing blood pressure than the Mediterranean diet. People who followed a DASH diet more closely had a 13 percent reduction in their 10-year cardiovascular disease risk score.
While processed, packaged, canned and fast foods are highest in blood pressure-raising sodium, most fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of potassium.
Cutting back on processed foods and eating more of these top potassium sources may help reduce your blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease. As a bonus, many of these are also foods high in magnesium and potassium and are recommended by the NIH DASH eating plan.
- Dried apricots and other dried fruit
- Coconut water
- Leafy green vegetables
- Oranges and orange juice
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
Magnesium and Your Blood Sugar
As an electrolyte, magnesium is of utmost importance. It plays a role in more than 300 reactions in the body, reports the NIH. It works along with potassium and calcium to maintain your heart rhythm, muscle contractions and nerve function.
Magnesium has also been getting more attention lately for its ability to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, especially diabetes. It plays an important role in glucose metabolism, and according to the NIH, people who eat more magnesium-rich foods are at lower risk of diabetes.
A review published in Nutrients in November 2016 found that, compared to those with the lowest dietary intake of magnesium, people who had more of this mineral in their diets had a 17 percent lower risk of developing diabetes.
Additionally, the results of this review, which included 637,922 participants, showed that for every 100 grams per day increase in magnesium, diabetes risk was reduced by 8 to 13 percent.
Magnesium-Rich Fruits and Veggies
Much like potassium, magnesium is found in whole foods. If you check a magnesium-rich foods chart, you won't find much magnesium in processed foods, packaged foods or fast foods.
A February 2017 study published in Population Health Metrics found that ultra-processed foods are associated with lower levels of many vitamins and minerals in one's diet, including magnesium and calcium. They're also higher in carbs, added sugar and saturated fat.
Researchers stated that cutting back on processed foods and incorporating more whole foods and home-cooked meals can be an effective strategy for improving one's diet and reducing health risks.
To increase your magnesium intake, work on incorporating more foods from this magnesium-rich foods chart. According to the NIH, some of the best dietary sources include:
- Nuts (especially almonds, cashews and peanuts)
- Peanut butter
- Whole wheat bread
- Baked potato
- Brown rice
- Whole grain breakfast cereals
Calcium for Bone Health
Like the other electrolytes, calcium is important for muscle and nerve function and to maintain healthy blood vessels. It's also important for healthy, strong bones. About 99 percent of your body's calcium is stored in the bones and teeth, according to the NIH.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that all women under 50 and men under 71 get 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. If you're older than this, you should aim for 1,200 milligrams each day.
It's best to get your calcium from foods rather than supplements. Calcium-rich foods not only provide calcium but also other nutrients that help maintain your bones and support good health.
Another reason to focus on foods is that research on calcium supplements to prevent osteoporosis fractures is mixed. In fact, the NIH reports that many studies show very minimal benefits.
Dairy foods are especially good sources of calcium, according to the NIH, but if you follow a dairy-free diet, you can also get ample calcium from other foods. Good sources include:
- Milk (cow's milk and fortified plant milk)
- Chia seeds
- Dried figs
- Leafy green vegetables
- Salmon (canned, with bones)
An important thing to know about calcium is that it needs to be in balance with magnesium. It's easier to become unbalanced if you're taking supplements. The best way to keep your levels of calcium and magnesium balanced is to eat a wide range of foods high in both minerals. It's rare that you overdo your nutrients when you get them from your diet.
Fitting Them All In
It might be tempting to take a supplement or even load up on electrolyte beverages to ensure you're getting enough of these minerals. Keep in mind, however, if you work on eating a healthier diet, you'll not only get plenty of foods high in magnesium and calcium and potassium, but you'll get many other benefits as well.
A whole foods diet provides vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidants so it will keep you healthier in the long run. To get enough magnesium, calcium and potassium in, start slowly by adding an extra serving of fruit or vegetables at each meal. If you eat out at fast-food restaurants, try to prepare a few more meals at home each week.
If you're overwhelmed at juggling different lists of mineral-rich foods, work on adding some of the foods that are good sources of all three minerals, like yogurt, bananas, legumes, nuts and leafy greens. Then, gradually increase your selection of foods over time.
- National Institutes of Health: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “DASH Eating Plan”
- British Journal of Nutrition: “Effects of the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (Dash) Diet on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”
- Harvard T.C. Chan School of Public Health: “Potassium”
- National Osteoporosis Foundation: “Your Guide to a Bone Healthy Diet”
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: “Calcium”
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: “Magnesium”
- Nutrients: “Dose-Response Relationship Between Dietary Magnesium Intake and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Regression Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies”
- National Academies of Science Engineering Medicine: "Diet and Health Implications For Reducing Chronic Disease Risk: Minerals"
- Population Health Metrics: "The Share of Ultra-Processed Foods and the Overall Nutritional Quality of Diets in the US: Evidence From a Nationally Representative Cross-Sectional Study"
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Electrolyte Minerals Intake and Cardiovascular Health"
- Endocrine Practice: "The Use of Vitamins and Minerals in Skeletal Health: American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the American College of Endocrinology Position Statement"