What are electrolytes and why do you need them?
You eat, drink, and lose electrolytes every day. These charged minerals are found in the water inside your body, and are essential for nerves to fire and muscles to contract. They are also needed for building bone, making your blood clot, and regulating your heartbeat. Additionally, they regulate how much fluid you have in your body and how acidic it is. You lose more electrolytes when you sweat more, as during exercise, on a hot day, or if you are ill with vomiting or diarrhea. Under these conditions you may need to take in more electrolytes than usual.
The electrolytes you need include:
The best food sources of electrolytes:
Most types of nuts, especially almonds, brazil nuts and cashews, contain large amounts of magnesium, as well as significant amounts of calcium and potassium. Magnesium is important for regulating blood sugar levels and blood pressure, and magnesium deficiency has been linked to diabetes and high blood pressure. Overall, these nutrient-packed superfoods are a great addition to your diet, either as snacks on their own or as delicious nut butters or dairy-alternative milks. They also contain heaps of veggie-protein and healthy fats, and so are great meat replacements for vegetarians and vegans!
These tasty tubers don’t exactly carry a reputation as a health food, but it might surprise you to find out they actually have the highest potassium content of all foods! This is especially important because studies have shown that most of us don’t get the recommended amount of potassium in our diets. This critical electrolyte is important for almost all our body systems, but especially for healthy kidneys and muscle function. So now you can enjoy potatoes’ starchy goodness knowing they can be good for your health, too!
A well-known superfood, this anti-carcinogen giant is full to the brim with electrolytes. It’s a great source of calcium, particularly for people who don’t eat dairy products, and also full of magnesium and potassium. Our body needs calcium to build new bone, which is necessary throughout life as our bone cells are constantly being broken down and replaced by new ones. If you don’t get enough calcium you can develop weak bones that may be more likely to break, a condition called osteoporosis. Calcium is also needed for normal blood clotting to prevent excessive bleeding, and for normal heart function. Looks like broccoli well and truly earns its health-food status!
Sunflower and pumpkin seeds
Both these seeds are packed with magnesium and phosphorus. Getting enough phosphorus is essential for muscle and bone health, as well as maintaining a healthy immune system. Sprinkling a handful of these seeds on your salad or enjoying them alone as a snack might fend off that office cold and keep you feeling your best.
The best drink sources of electrolytes:
You don’t need a medical degree to know that cow’s milk is full of calcium and helps keep our bones in good shape, but you may not know that it also contains a ton of phosphorus and sodium. You actually get triple the electrolyte benefit on your cereal and in your coffee! If you don’t like the taste on its own, try flavoured milkshakes or even hot chocolate to get your liquid electrolyte fix.
With both veganism and lactose intolerance levels rising, many of you may be wondering how you can still get enough of these essential nutrients if you can’t consume dairy products. You’ll be pleased to know that in fact many milk alternatives do contain lots of calcium, particularly soy, rice, coconut and hemp milks. Plus, many brands of dairy alternatives are fortified with extra calcium to help you get enough. Soy and almond milks are also great sources of phosphorus, so you don’t need to miss out just because you don’t drink the cow’s stuff.
We may not have access to coconuts straight off the trees in every climate, but supermarket cartons of coconut water have become increasingly popular in recent years, and for good reason. Coconut water is extremely rich in potassium, sodium, and chloride. A sodium-enriched coconut drink may be even more effective than a traditional sports drink as post-exercise rehydration therapy.
Other sources of electrolytes:
Yes - really! It may sound strange, but pickle juice has received a lot of attention from sports and exercise nutrition experts due to its extraordinary electrolyte properties. It contains at least eight times more sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium than standard sports drinks. Drinking pickle juice might be a more effective way of preventing exercise-induced muscle cramps than drinking these standard sports drinks.
Table salt and its alternatives
Table salt is normally around 99% sodium chloride. Both sodium and chloride are important electrolytes, with sodium being used by our bodies for muscle and nerve contraction. However, Western diets generally contain much more sodium than most people need, while not providing enough potassium. Excess sodium can cause high blood pressure and lead to heart problems. It may be a good idea to balance out your intake of these electrolytes by swapping table salt for substitutes made from potassium chloride. A top tip though: these taste bitter after heating, so we recommend sticking to normal table salt in your cooking!
Electrolyte replacement products:
Sports drinks such as Powerade and Gatorade are often used to replace fluid, carbohydrates, and electrolytes, especially sodium, lost in sweat. One major advantage of sports drinks is that they tend to cause less bloating than other electrolyte-rich drinks, such as milk. However, although they are good sources of fluid and carbohydrates, they often contain only the same (or even less) sodium than the same volume of milk. With their much larger price tag, they may not be worth the addition to your shopping bill.
Some sports drink companies also provide powdered electrolyte solutions that you can add to water. These have pretty much the same level of benefit as the sports drinks, although they often don’t taste as nice! They can be good occasional additions, but like other sports drinks they are usually more expensive and not necessarily more effective than whole food or drink sources of electrolytes. You can also buy packets of electrolyte-rich oral rehydration powder at your local pharmacy; these can be great if you’ve lost an especially large amount of fluid, such as when you’ve been ill with diarrhea. If you don’t need medical treatment but do want a quick electrolyte fix that doesn’t taste awful, Hydrant hydration mixes might be a good place to start.
You can also replace lost electrolytes in the form of tablets, which often contain many different electrolytes including calcium, chloride, and magnesium. Again, these probably don’t provide more electrolytes than whole food or drink sources, but they do have several advantages not offered by these or by replacement drinks or powders. For example, they often have no or very few calories, which may be especially important if you are sweating while exercising for weight loss. Furthermore, you don’t have to carry a large, heavy water bottle or food product, meaning they can go with you and be consumed during a long endurance event such as a marathon. This may help keep your performance from suffering electrolyte loss during the course, which can lead to fatigue or muscle cramps.
Writer: Elena Taylor