By Sylvana Rinehart. 

My husband and I just returned from a brief trip to France, renowned for being the epicenter of healthy and refined cuisine, with lots of little shops presenting luscious displays of fruits and vegetables in every neighborhood. As all good tourists do, we walked endlessly and crisscrossed the city of Paris, but were disappointed to see far fewer corner fruit stands than a decade ago. To my astonishment, we saw warning signs on street kiosks, in the metro and buses alerting readers about the need for eating a healthy diet. This is unheard of in France! Under every ad for fast food there was a banner reminding the public to eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day. We saw McDonalds ads with a warning banner reminding us to eat our fruits and veggies. Processed foods are much more abundant than I remembered. I grew up in Europe and often used to tease my husband that he won me over thanks to the US junk food he introduced to me. In doing my research for this blog, I came across a relevant article in and subsequently reproduced in about the importance of having a potassium rich diet to reduce the risk of stroke. This goes hand in hand with the French healthy eating habits campaign. Read on.

Beth Howard, author of the article states that women are more likely than men to have a stroke and to die from it, but a 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. These are the types of strokes caused by a blockage in a blood vessel supplying the brain.

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 Dr. Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, an epidemiologist at Albert Einstein and a principal investigator with the Women’s Health Initiative.

Yet we are not getting the potassium we need

Unfortunately, both women and men fall far short of the recommended levels for potassium, which is needed for many bodily functions, including heart and muscle function. “In the study, the average potassium intake from foods was 2,611 mg/day,” says Wassertheil-Smoller. “That’s well below the recommended amount of 4,700 mg/day by the Department of Agriculture or even the lower recommended amount of 3,600 mg/day by the World Health Organization.”
The culprit: Fast food and processed foods

Many seniors habitually go out to eat for convenience and are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are rich sources of potassium. Do you know which foods are full of potassium? Bananas, orange juice, yogurt, potatoes, unprocessed meats and greens, leafy vegetables like spinach, winter squash, sweet potatoes, white beans, halibut, broccoli, cantaloupe, pork tenderloin, lentils, milk, salmon, pistachios, raisins, chicken breasts and tuna all contain good quantities of potassium.

And now what should we do?

According to the registered dietician Alissa Rumsey, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, aiming to consume at least five servings per day of fruits and vegetables and eat more fish and legumes. She suggests steaming or roasting a batch of vegetables once a week to carry us through various meals.  Keep fresh fruits around the house to snack on instead of processed snack foods like crackers or chips.
• Eat a fatty fish two to three times a week
• Add beans or lentils to salads, soups and stir-fries.
• Drink low-fat milk instead of soda

It doesn’t take long for us to get into unhealthy habits for convenience sake, like eating fast food or those delicious potato chips and nachos like my husband gave to me when we were first dating thirty some years ago. Having been to France and seen the warning signs, we now are making an effort to add more potassium to our diet. He gets me to eat more fruits and I give him more grains.

I hope you’ll do the same – or better!