You know you need to get enough protein, fiber, healthy carbs, and other vitamins and nutrients, but what about electrolytes? I don't know about you, but I tend to forget about electrolytes entirely, unless I'm coming off a hard-core workout or sick with the stomach flu and need a Gatorade.
But electrolytes are as important as those other nutrients; they help with essential body functions. "Electrolytes are minerals in your body that regulate pH levels of the blood and the amount of fluid in your body," says Robin Foroutan, MD, RDN, HHC, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "And they're called electrolytes because they have an electrical charge, which sounds crazy, but most minerals also have an electrical charge. They're really important to how our muscles contract and how our nerves send impulses throughout our body. And then, of course, they're beneficial for hydration balance and keeping the blood pH normal. If your blood pH goes wonky, you could die, so it's really important."
For the most part, Foroutan says people are perfectly fine getting electrolytes from a balanced diet, but some people might need supplements, depending on their lifestyle or condition. One example would be if you're an athlete who sweats a lot, you might need more. Another would be if you're sick and vomiting or have diarrhea, then you might need some extra electrolytes to retain the balance.
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If you have severe dehydration and an imbalance, Foroutan says you could experience symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, feelings of confusion, muscle cramping, headaches, or convulsions. For times when you need a supplement or something like Gatorade or a sports drink, she suggests looking for products without added sugar and artificial food colorings. Or if you feel like making your own, coconut water with a pinch of salt can also be really helpful.
For just a mild imbalance, you might not notice any symptoms aside from feeling really thirsty. Because the symptoms could be vague, it might be wise to make sure you're getting enough electrolytes in your diet altogether to avoid the issue. To help, take a look at this list of foods Foroutan suggested below.
"Sodium has a bad rap, and certainly too much of it is not great," Foroutan says. "But we need sodium and chloride; they're two very important electrolytes. We need a little bit of salt, and we need all the other mineral electrolytes to let our bodies function properly." But that doesn't mean you have free reign to eat that whole oversize bag of potato chips. Two good sources of sodium chloride are pickles and sauerkraut.
Another option with sodium chloride, celery is a great source according to Foroutan, who wonders if a lot of the celery juice trend has to do with the number of electrolytes inside making people feel better.
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Potassium is another electrolyte that's important, Foroutan says. According to USDA's FoodData Central, one cup of sliced avocado contains 708 milligrams of potassium.
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Another potassium winner, cantaloupe isn't just "filler fruit" in a fruit salad. It has a high amount of water (144 grams per cup) and potassium (251 milligrams per cup).
In my short (one-season) career as a high school swimmer, I would get tons of leg cramps, which isn't ideal when you're swimming laps and suddenly almost drowning. My swim coach would recommend bananas, which of course are packed with potassium. Once I started eating one before every workout, those annoying leg cramps went away.
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Sweet potatoes are another potassium win—one raw contains 337 milligrams.
Nuts and seeds contain all sorts of electrolytes, depending on the type. For instance, one cup of roasted, unsalted pumpkin seeds contains 550 milligrams of magnesium, 788 milligrams of potassium, and 256 milligrams of sodium. And a cup of roasted almonds has 1100 milligrams of potassium, 430 milligrams of magnesium, and 532 milligrams of sodium.
Lastly, Foroutan pinpoints calcium as another electrolyte. So of course, when you think of calcium, probably the first thing that comes to mind is milk and dairy products. Plus, they're also high in potassium and sodium.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be used in the place of advice of your physician or other medical professionals. You should always consult with your doctor or healthcare provider first with any health-related questions. See our full health disclaimer here.