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food for thought

A diet high in potassium is associated with maintaining bone density and reducing the risk of calcium-containing kidney stones.samael334/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Q: I am trying to eat a heart-healthy diet but find it difficult to get all the potassium I need while controlling calories to lose weight. Which foods are best?

Many Canadians don’t get enough potassium in their diet, a mineral that’s plentiful in fruits, leafy greens, pulses (such as kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils), nuts, seeds and dairy products.

That’s concerning since potassium is vital for regulating your heartbeat and maintaining kidney function. It helps muscles contract and nerves function properly.

A diet high in potassium is also associated with maintaining bone density and reducing the risk of calcium-containing kidney stones. As well, studies suggest it may help protect against type 2 diabetes.

When it comes to heart health, scores of studies have shown that a potassium-rich diet helps keep blood pressure in check. Potassium helps blood vessels relax and causes the kidneys to excrete more sodium, preventing blood pressure from rising.

If you already have hypertension, increasing your potassium intake can help lower blood pressure. And studies suggest that increasing potassium also lowers the risk of stroke.

How much potassium?

According to the U.S.-based National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, adult women should consume 2,600 milligrams of potassium each day; men should aim for 3,600 milligrams daily.

The World Health Organization suggests that adults should consume at least 3,510 mg of potassium from food each day to guard against high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

To meet your daily target, include excellent sources of potassium at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Consider the following strategies to infuse more of the mineral (along with many other nutrients) into meals and snacks, while not overloading on calories.

(Note: People who have kidney disease or take medications that impair potassium excretion from the body should consult their doctor to find out whether they should avoid high-potassium foods.)

Eat more pulses

Enjoy beans and lentils in soups or chilis, add them to tacos, or toss them into green salads or pasta sauces for potassium along with plant protein.

Three-quarters of a cup of white kidney beans, for example, packs 753 mg of potassium. The same serving size of pinto beans or lentils each have 550 mg of the mineral, while three-quarters of a cup of black beans contain 450 mg.

While not technically a pulse, edamame is also potassium-rich, supplying 507 mg in every three-quarters of a cup.

Swap your starches

Instead of the usual brown rice, have squash at dinner. One cup of cooked acorn squash delivers 896 mg of potassium while one cup of butternut squash has 582 mg.

Or, serve a baked Russet potato (926 mg for one medium potato with skin) or sweet potato (542 mg for one medium potato).

Include leafy greens

Serve sautéed or steamed Swiss chard (1 cup has 1,016 mg of potassium) or spinach (839 mg) more often. Or, add leafy greens to a marinara sauce or a vegetable lasagna.

If you eat fresh beets, don’t throw out their green tops. One cup of cooked beet greens contains an impressive 1,310 mg of potassium.

Eat fruit

Bananas are known for their outstanding potassium content (422 mg in a medium-sized one), but other excellent sources include cantaloupe (440 mg in one cup) and kiwi fruit (430 mg for two).

Enjoy dried apricots for a midday snack; one-third cup provides 503 mg of potassium. Not bad for 100 calories.

Consider milk and yogurt

If you eat dairy, add milk to your smoothies for 366 mg of potassium for each cup. Regular yogurt is also a good source with 446 mg in a three-quarter cup (Greek yogurt has 250 mg).

When it comes to milk alternatives, soy milk is the best source, providing 350 mg a cup.

Have fish more often

Halibut, Atlantic salmon and haddock are excellent sources of potassium, providing, for every six ounces, 900, 894 and 600 mg, respectively. Four ounces of canned pink salmon has 377 mg of the mineral.

Sip coconut water

One cup of unsweetened coconut water provides 400 to 450 mg of potassium for only 45 calories. Add it to smoothies or swap it with one of your daily servings of water.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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