Quick: What foods are rich in potassium? If you’re drawing a blank, you could be missing out on important protection from stroke, particularly ischemic stroke—the type caused by a blockage in a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain.
Women are more likely than men to have a stroke and to die from it. But a recent study of more than 90,000 women ages 50 to 70 from New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that those who consumed the highest amounts of potassium in their diet were least likely to experience a stroke. Potassium-rich diets reduced stroke risk in general by 12 percent and the risk of ischemic stroke by 16 percent.
The benefit was even greater among women who did not have hypertension, or high blood pressure. In this subset of women, high potassium levels lowered the risk for all types of strokes by 21 percent and by 27 percent for ischemic stroke, compared to women with hypertension.
Other research has linked high potassium levels to lower blood pressure, which helps prevent stroke. But the study showed that potassium itself reduces stroke risk. “We think the beneficial effects act through other pathways, beyond the effects on blood pressure,” says study author Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Albert Einstein and a principal investigator with the Women’s Health Initiative.
Unfortunately, both women and men fall far short of the recommended levels for potassium, which is needed for many body functions including heart and muscle function. “In the study, the average potassium intake from foods was 2611 mg/day,” says Wassertheil-Smoller. “That’s well below the recommended amount of 4700 mg/day by the Department of Agriculture or even the lower recommended amount of 3600 mg/day by the World Health Organization.”
Dependence on fast and processed food appears to be the culprit. “Many people don’t get enough potassium because they rely on convenience and restaurant foods and aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are rich sources of potassium,” says Alissa Rumsey, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Yet, “potassium is pretty ubiquitous,” says Wassertheil-Smoller. “Foods rich in potassium are bananas, orange juice, yogurt, potatoes, unprocessed meats, and green, leafy vegetables like spinach.” Winter squash, sweet potatoes, white beans, halibut, broccoli, cantaloupe, pork tenderloin, lentils, milk, salmon, pistachios, raisins, chicken breast, and tuna boast especially plentiful potassium stores.
To boost your intake of this heart-healthy nutrient, Rumsey suggests aiming to consume at least five servings per day of fruits and vegetables and eat more fish and legumes. These measures can help you reach this goal:
- Steam or roast a good supply of vegetables on Sunday, and use them for lunch and dinner during the week.
- Keep fresh fruit around your home or office, and snack on it instead of processed snack foods like crackers or chips.
- Aim to eat at least two to three servings of fatty fish per week.
- Add beans or lentils to salads, soups, and stir-fries.
- When dining out, order a salad, bean-based dishes, fish, fruit side dish, or steamed or roasted vegetables.
- Drink low-fat milk instead of soda.
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