It’s true that sodium intake plays a role in whether you develop high blood pressure (hypertension). However, it appears that getting enough of another mineral — potassium — may be just as important.

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When it comes to heart health, we hear a lot about the importance of reducing sodium, particularly because of its effects on blood pressure. It’s true that the sodium that’s added to most prepared foods — and the salt you add at home, to a lesser extent — plays a role in whether you develop high blood pressure (hypertension). However, it appears that getting enough of another mineral — potassium — may be just as important.

Potassium counteracts the effects of sodium by helping to remove some of it from your bloodstream. But more than that, potassium is essential to the proper functioning of every cell in your body. As an electrolyte, it regulates how fluids and minerals flow in and out of your cells, facilitates normal nerve function, helps to manage your body’s pH, and controls the electrical activity of your heart and other muscles. It can also help prevent kidney stones and bone loss.

How much potassium do we need? The recommended daily intake for adults is 4,700 milligrams (mg), but fewer than two in 100 Americans get that much, and women tend to get even less than men. The average adult gets about 3,300 mg per day. Why do we fall short? In large part because we’re eating more high-sodium processed foods, and fewer fruits and vegetables.

Where to find potassium

Let’s say you want to reverse that trend in your own food choices — where do you start? It isn’t as hard as you might think, because potassium is found in many whole and minimally processed foods. Balance more-processed convenience foods by pairing them with a high-potassium fruit or vegetable. Some of the best sources are:
Beans: black, kidney, lima, pinto, red, white, etc. Also lentils.
Fruit: Apricots, avocados, bananas, dates, figs, kiwi, mangoes, melons, nectarines, oranges, papayas, fresh peaches, fresh pears, prunes and raisins.
Starchy vegetables: potatoes, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, winter squash and yams.
Dark leafy greens: Beet, chard, collard, kale, mustard, spinach, turnip.
Other non-starchy vegetables: Artichokes, parsnips, tomatoes (fresh, canned, paste, juice etc.), zucchini.
Protein foods: Milk, many nuts and seeds, nut butters, peanuts, peanut butter, salmon and yogurt.
Miscellaneous: chocolate, cocoa, coffee and salt substitutes.

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Not surprisingly, fruits, vegetables, beans and low-fat dairy products are key components of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan. DASH and other plant-based diets are good for health not just because they include adequate potassium, but because they also offer a wealth of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber.

What about taking potassium supplements? Supplements are certainly a viable option for making up shortfalls of certain key nutrients — calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 are a few notable examples — but research supports the importance of getting potassium from food. One reason is that too much potassium can cause health problems, especially in individuals who have poorly functioning kidneys.

Thinking seasonal

Want to work on getting more potassium, but also want to eat seasonally? Fortunately, lots of foods on the high-potassium list are currently in season, even during these dreary, dark midwinter days — including pears. While you can find pears in your grocery store nearly year-round, winter and early spring is prime time for pears, with all 10 varieties in season, including Anjou, red Anjou, Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Concorde and Seckel.

Unlike most fruits, pears ripen off the tree, which means many people have unwittingly eaten pears that haven’t reached peak ripeness. Fortunately, it’s not hard to assess a pear’s ripeness — just “check the neck” by applying gentle pressure to the neck, or stem end, of the pear with your thumb. If it yields to pressure, it’s ripe. Have some unripe pears on hand? Leave them at room temperature to ripen — speeding up the process by putting them near bananas, if you like. Once a pear is ripe, refrigerate it to slow the ripening process, then use within five days. Have a few too many ripe pears on hand? Try blending them into smoothies, or make pear sauce.

 

Roasted Pears with Delicata Squash

Serves 4

Note: This beautiful side dish from USA Pears, which has more than 800 mg potassium per serving, combines roasted, seasonal fruits and vegetables like red Anjou pears and delicata squash, and drizzles them with a pomegranate glaze. A note on pomegranate molasses: This is the syrupy, not-too-sweet reduction of pomegranate juice, which in the Seattle area you can find in specialty stores that carry Mediterranean or Middle Eastern ingredients, or probably any grocery store with a decent international food section. It’s also readily available online. Not sure what to do with the rest of the bottle? Stir a little into sparkling water, drizzle it on roasted vegetables, whisk it into a salad dressing or brush it on meat or poultry as a glaze.

1 small delicata squash (about 12 ounces)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 red Anjou pears, halved, cored, and cut into 6 wedges
8 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved (keep any loose leaves)
3 large shallots, peeled, trimmed, and cut lengthwise in half or quarters
¼ cup fresh pomegranate arils (the “seeds”)

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Halve the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Cut into ½-inch-thick moon-shaped slices.
2. Whisk together the olive oil, pomegranate molasses, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the squash, pears, Brussels sprouts and shallots and toss to coat evenly.
3. Spread the mixture on a large rimmed baking sheet in a single layer with the cut sides down. Roast tender and browned on one side, 20 to 25 minutes.
4. Loosen the pears and vegetables from the baking pan with a firm spatula and toss them all together. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with the pomegranate arils. Serve hot or at room temperature.

— Recipe courtesy of USA Pears