By Zrinka Peters
Summertime overflows with youth sports, adult pickleball leagues, and leisurely days spent sweating under the summer sun. All that heat and activity makes us thirsty, and it makes us wonder about electrolytes, too—how many we’re losing, how many we need, and how to replenish those that we’ve lost.
Electrolytes began to enter the national consciousness back in 1965 with the invention of Gatorade, and interest has grown steadily since. Today’s global sports drink market is valued at more than $26 billion, and the neon-colored bottles, tablets, and powders are found everywhere. They’re even handed out to 5-year-olds after T-ball games. But do we all actually need them?
Electrolytes are minerals, such as sodium, magnesium, and potassium, which carry an electric charge when dissolved in fluid, and the human body relies on this conduction of electrical charges for countless functions.
Electrolytes are crucial for maintaining fluid balance throughout the body, as well as for muscle contractions (including in the heart), nerve impulses, and much more. Getting too many or too few electrolytes can result in negative effects that range from muscle cramps and fatigue to potentially life-threatening complications. We consume electrolytes mainly through food and drink, and lose them when we sweat, as well as through bouts of sickness that can result in fluid loss through vomiting or diarrhea.
The good news is that, for most people who are moderately active and health conscious, it’s possible to get a good balance of all of the necessary electrolytes through a wholesome, well-balanced diet.
“For most people who participate in moderate exercise, water and a balanced diet usually provide enough electrolytes. Supplementing with electrolytes isn’t usually necessary unless you are engaged in intense, long-duration physical activity or are exercising in extreme heat,” Alex Stone, a Washington-based doctor of physical therapy and certified strength and conditioning specialist, told The Epoch Times.
Being aware of electrolyte-rich food sources can help us make smart dietary choices based on our individual needs and activity levels.
Sodium is one of the most abundant electrolytes, and it plays a crucial role in regulating extracellular fluid volume. There’s some debate among medical professionals over what the optimal recommended amount of sodium—along with its twin electrolyte, chloride—should be, but most agree that overconsumption is more likely than underconsumption for the average American. The American Heart Association recommends that adults who are generally healthy consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, but most of us—about 90 percent—consume far more, mostly through the sodium chloride (table salt) that has been added to processed foods and beverages.
For that reason, while certain groups of people—such as endurance athletes and those with medical or dietary conditions that result in low sodium levels—may benefit from a sodium-heavy electrolyte supplement, most don’t.
Potassium, on the other hand, is easier to overlook. It’s essential for regulating blood pressure, as well as for muscle contractions, kidney function, and the transmission of nerve impulses. The National Academy of Medicine recommends that the adequate intake of potassium (the “amount assumed to be adequate in apparently healthy individuals”) for older children and adults ranges from 2,300 to 3,400 milligrams per day, based on sex and stage of life. Women older than 19 are advised to get 2,600 milligrams of potassium daily, while adult men should strive for 3,400 milligrams. Unlike sodium, which most of us get more than enough of, American adults are generally deficient in potassium, with the average intake falling a few hundred milligrams short of the recommended amounts for both sexes.
Potassium is found in significant amounts in a variety of fruits, vegetables, dairy products, fish, and meats. Leafy greens such as beet tops and spinach are rich sources of potassium (1,300 milligrams and 618 milligrams, respectively, per cup when cooked), as are baked potatoes with the skin on (919 milligrams). Half an avocado contains 485 milligrams of potassium, and, of course, bananas are still a great pick, with about 422 milligrams of potassium per fruit. Other good choices of potassium-rich foods are dried apricots, beans and lentils, squash, kiwi, and yogurt.
Magnesium is also often deficient in American adults. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of magnesium is 310–320 milligrams per day for adult women (350 milligrams during pregnancy or lactation), and 400–420 milligrams per day for adult men. But most of us don’t reach those goals.
“Large, cross-sectional, population-based data sets confirm over half the adult population in the United States does not consume adequate amounts of magnesium,” according to a June 2018 Nutrition Reviews article titled “Factors influencing magnesium consumption among adults in the United States.”
Most of us get too little magnesium in our diet because processed foods are typically low in magnesium and soil conditions have reduced the magnesium in foods. We also lose this mineral through sweat and urine.
To complicate the matter, symptoms of magnesium deficiencies can vary widely and mimic many other conditions. Such symptoms include cardiovascular and neuromuscular problems, along with dozens of other potential symptoms that range from tinnitus and migraines to depression.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple and reliable test to accurately measure overall magnesium levels because the majority of the body’s magnesium is stored in bone and muscle. However, a careful dietary analysis can offer a good idea of how well you are meeting the RDA, and there are several online programs, such as Cronometer, that make this easy. Good dietary sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables (1/2 cup of cooked spinach contains 78 milligrams), nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. And dark chocolate lovers can continue to indulge; 1 ounce contains 50 milligrams of magnesium.
Eat Your Vitamins and Supplement Wisely
Consuming a nutrient-dense, varied diet should cover the bases not only for sodium, potassium, and magnesium, but also for the other major electrolytes (calcium, chloride, phosphate, and bicarbonate).
While most people should be able to meet their electrolyte needs through a varied and nutritious diet, there are times when supplementing may be a good idea. Intense workouts that are more than an hour long, and illnesses or medications that result in dehydration or poor mineral absorption can make supplementing with electrolytes a good idea.
“It’s essential to listen to your body; symptoms of electrolyte imbalance may include muscle cramps, fatigue, headache, and nausea,” Mr. Stone said.
When facing the aisle of popular sports drinks, there are a few things to keep in mind. Many options do contain some electrolytes, but are also loaded with sugar, preservatives, and artificial colors or sweeteners—additions that can work against your health and fitness goals.
“While popular sports drinks can provide hydration and some electrolytes, they often contain high amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners,” nutritionist and personal trainer Mary Sabat told The Epoch Times.
“Excessive sugar consumption can contribute to health issues such as weight gain, tooth decay, and increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes. Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, have their own controversies and potential health concerns,” Ms. Sabat said.
One 20-ounce bottle of a popular sports drink, for example, contains 34 grams of sugar—more than 8 teaspoons. This is more than the entire daily allowance of 6 grams recommended for women by the American Heart Association. Add controversial food dyes and preservatives to this (not to mention the price), and any suggestion of a net benefit becomes dubious.
There are many healthier, low- or zero-sugar electrolyte drinks and tablets now available, which are likely better options for those who are looking to supplement.
“If you’re looking for alternatives to sports drinks, there are several options available. Coconut water is a natural source of electrolytes, including potassium and magnesium. It is lower in sugar compared to many sports drinks and can be a refreshing choice,” Ms. Sabat said.
“Another alternative is to look for electrolyte drinks sweetened with natural options like stevia, which is a plant-based, zero-calorie sweetener. These beverages can provide electrolyte replenishment without the high sugar content. It’s always a good idea to read labels, compare products, and make informed choices based on your own health goals.”
It’s also easy to make your own electrolyte-replenishing sports drink at home, for pennies. A quick online search will yield dozens of recipes, and some are as simple as adding a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice to your water bottle.
Top Food Sources of Electrolytes
If you’re looking to eat your vitamins and gain all the synergistic benefits of complex nutrition that come from natural sources, here are some good options for electrolytes, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements.
Top Sources of Potassium
- Apricots, dried, 1/2 cup (755 mg)
- Lentils, cooked, 1 cup (731 mg)
- Squash, acorn, mashed, 1 cup (644 mg)
- Prunes, dried, 1/2 cup (635 mg)
- Raisins, 1/2 cup (618 mg)
- Potato, baked, flesh only, 1 medium (610 mg)
- Kidney beans, canned, 1 cup (607 mg)
- Orange juice, 1 cup (496 mg)
- Banana, 1 medium (422 mg)
- Milk, 1 percent, 1 cup (366 mg)
Top Sources of Magnesium
- Pumpkin seeds, roasted, 1 ounce (156 mg)
- Chia seeds, 1 ounce (111 mg)
- Almonds, dry roasted, 1 ounce (80 mg)
- Spinach, boiled, 1/2 cup (78 mg)
- Cashews, dry roasted, 1 ounce (74 mg)
- Peanuts, oil roasted, 1/4 cup (63 mg)
- Cereal, shredded wheat, 2 large biscuits (61 mg)
- Soymilk, plain or vanilla, 1 cup (61 mg)
- Black beans, cooked, 1/2 cup (61 mg)
- Edamame, shelled, cooked, 1/2 cup (50 mg)
Top Sources of Calcium
- Yogurt, plain, low fat, 8 ounces (415 mg)
- Orange juice, calcium-fortified, 1 cup (349 mg)
- Mozzarella, part skim, 1 1/2 ounces (333 mg)
- Sardines, canned in oil, with bones, 3 ounces (325 mg)
- Milk, nonfat, 1 cup (299 mg)
- Soymilk, calcium-fortified, 1 cup (299 mg)
- Milk, whole (3 1/4 percent milk fat), 1 cup (276 mg)
- Tofu, firm, made with calcium sulfate, 1/2 cup (253 mg)
- Salmon, pink, canned, solids with bones, 3 ounces (181 mg)
- Cottage cheese, 1 percent milk fat, 1 cup (138 mg)