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Heart : Are You Getting Enough Potassium?

China Millman

The buzzword: Potassium

The expert: Elena Kuklina, M.D., Ph.D., a nutritional epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention.

Q: What is potassium?

A: It's one of the essential nutrients, such as sodium magnesium, calcium, which are required for normal cellular function.

Q: What does it do?

A: It does a lot. It reduces blood pressure. It prevents kidney stones and bone loss.

Q: I often hear potassium mentioned along with sodium. How are they related?

A: Mostly it does the opposite thing. If sodium has the effect of contracting, potassium relaxes. If sodium holds water in the body, potassium helps to get rid of excess water. ... If you have high sodium [in your diet], it will help if you eat more potassium.

Q: Do we get enough of it?

A: The current recommendations for potassium are 4,700 mg per day, but on average, Americans get only 3,000 mg.

Q: Can we take a supplement?

A: Supplements don't work as well as getting potassium from fresh food, partially because of the different composition of potassium in supplement form.

Q: What are good sources for potassium?

A: If you eat five fruits and vegetables per day, you will meet [the recommended amount]. But sometimes people don't have this amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet. Potassium-rich fruits and vegetables include leafy greens, such as spinach and collards, grapes, blackberries, carrots, potatoes and citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits.

The Takeaway: Eating five fruits and vegetables every day will ensure you get enough potassium, which is especially important if your diet is high in salt.

Spicy stewed potatoes and spinach with buttermilk

PG tested

Potatoes and spinach are both high in potassium, and while potatoes sometimes get a bad rap, they're a lot healthier when cooked in water instead of oil. These potatoes are a bit spicy, but that heat is integral to their flavor, so I'd advise against leaving out the chiles.

-- China Millman

--1 pound russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

--2 dried red chiles, such as Thai, cayenne or chile de arbol, stemmed

--1 cup boiling water

--1/2 cup firmly packed fresh cilantro

--4 large garlic cloves, peeled

--3/4 teaspoon salt

--1 tablespoon canola oil

--1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

--1/2 cup buttermilk

--1 tablespoon whipping cream

--8 ounces baby spinach

Place potatoes in a medium bowl; cover with cold water to prevent browning. Place chiles in a small heat-proof bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Set aside until they are reconstituted, about 15 minutes. Reserving the chile-soaking water, coarsely chop the chiles (do not seed).

Pile cilantro, garlic, salt and the chopped chiles in a mortar. Pound the ingredients to a pulpy mass with the pestle, using a spatula to contain the mixture in the center for a concentrated pounding. (Alternatively, pulse the ingredients in a food processor until minced.)

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the spice paste and cook, stirring, until the garlic is honey-brown and the chiles are pungent, 1 to 2 minutes. (Make sure to use adequate ventilation.) Drain the potatoes and add to the pan along with the turmeric; cook, stirring to coat the potatoes with the yellow spice, about 30 seconds. Pour in the reserved chile-soaking water and scrape the pan to loosen any browned bits; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are fork-tender, 15 to 20 minutes. If the potatoes get dry before they get tender, add a little more water to the pan.

Whisk buttermilk and cream in a small bowl.

When the potatoes are tender, pile the spinach leaves over them, cover and cook until the spinach is wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the buttermilk mixture. Don't worry if it curdles a little.

Serves 4.

-- Adapted from "The Simple Art of EatingWell Cookbook" by Jessie Price & the EatingWell Test Kitchen (2010, $35)

French lentils with Chard

PG tested

Lentils and chard are both good sources of potassium, and this dish has the added bonus of being equally good warm or cold. Using the chard stem adds a wonderful sweet note to the earthy lentils. For a vegetarian version, simply substitute vegetable stock or even water, but compensate with a little extra salt.

-- China Millman

--1 onion, chopped fine

-12 ounces Swiss chard, stems chopped fine and leaves sliced into 1/2-inch pieces

--4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

--Salt and pepper

--2 garlic cloves, minced

--1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried

--1 3/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

--1 cup lentilles du Puy (French green lentils), rinsed and picked over

--2 teaspoons lemon juice

Combine onion, chard stems, 1 teaspoon oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a large saucepan. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Stir in broth and lentils and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until lentils are mostly tender but still slightly crunchy, about 35 minutes longer.

Uncover and stir in chard leaves. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until lentils are completely tender, about 8 minutes longer. Stir in remaining 1 tablespoon oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve hot or cold.

Makes 81/2 cups.

-- Adapted from "America's Test Kitchen Light & Healthy: The Year's Best Recipes Lightened Up" (America's Test Kitchen, 2012, $35)

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com. Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman.

©2012 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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