Electrolytes and Food: How to Get Electrolytes From Your Diet

Various fruits, vegetables and foods that are high in electrolytes

Function of Electrolytes

In many bodily functions and processes, electrolytes play an important role. Electrolytes are vital for:

  • Enabling the transmission of electrical impulses between the heart, muscle, and nerve cells to other cells.
  • Maintaining sufficient hydration.
  • Balance of blood pressure and blood pH.
  • Overseeing function of the muscles and nerves, including muscle contraction and relaxation.
  • Assisting in the repair tissue damage.
  • Assisting with blood clotting.

Foods That Contain Electrolytes

Electrolytes are found in many foods and beverages, including:

  • Vegetables: Green leafy vegetables like spinach, collard greens, and Kale are great sources of calcium and magnesium. Sweet potatoes, squash, and avocado are all rich in potassium. With the skin on, potatoes are high in potassium, phosphorous, and magnesium.
  • Fruits: Bananas, prunes, dried apricots, and other fruits are all rich in potassium.
  • Legumes: Soybeans, kidney beans, and Lentils contain magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. If manufactured with calcium sulfate as a coagulant, tofu can be a source for calcium.
  • Dairy products: Yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products are all great sources of calcium. These products also contain other electrolytes like magnesium, phosphorous, and sodium.
  • Seeds and nuts: Seeds, nuts, and and seed or nut butters are good sources of magnesium. Some, like cashews have moderate levels of phosphorous.
  • Cereals: Some cereals are calcium fortified, while others are made with wheat or oats which contain magnesium.
  • Salted Foods: Table salt is made up of around 40% sodium and 60% chloride. These electrolytes can be found in salty foods like olives and pickles.

Drinks That Contain Electrolytes

Some beverages naturally contain high levels of electrolytes while others are specially prepared to deliver them. Beverages in which electrolytes are naturally found include:

  • Coconut water – Often referred to as “nature’s sports drink,” it’s naturally low in sugar and rich in potassium, magnesium and sodium.
  • Orange juice – contains potassium, and often calcium.
  • Milk – a source of calcium and potassium.
  • Soy milk – a good source of potassium and magnesium.
  • Tomato juice – a source of sodium. 

Sports drinks, or recovery drinks, are usually made with high levels of electrolytes. These drinks may be suitable for athletes who want to increase their electrolytes before, during, and/or after exercise.

Which is Better: Foods or Drinks?

Both food and beverages contribute to an individual’s electrolyte levels. The average person can get sufficient levels of electrolytes through their diet, so they don’t need to take supplements or sports drinks.

Electrolyte levels are regulated by the body efficiently, but there are instances where certain individuals might benefit from rehydration drinks or electrolyte supplements.

Supplementation can be useful to prevent electrolyte imbalances during periods of vomiting or diarrhea. People who sweat a lot or engage in intense workouts may also need to rehydrate with a sports drink in order to replenish lost electrolytes.

Additionally, an electrolyte imbalance can be caused by consuming high amounts of electrolytes. Before taking electrolyte supplement, it is a good idea to consult your doctor.

Recommended Electrolyte Intake

The following are the recommended daily intake of electrolytes that most individuals will need to maintain good health:

  • Calcium: 1,000m for all individuals over the age of 18. 1,200 mg for women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 70.(1)
  • Magnesium: 400mg for men and 310m for women ages 19-30; 420m for men and 320m for women over the age of 30.(2)
  • Phosphorous: 700m for people over the age of 18 (19 and up).(3)
  • Potassium: 3,400 mg for adult men, and 2,600 mg for adult women.(4)
  • Sodium: 2,300 mg per day max, but ideally not more than 1,500 mg.(5)
  • Chloride : Since almost all of dietary chloride is found in table salt, the Institute of Medicine has set the level of chloride to the same level as sodium.(6)

Some minerals may be more important for women who are pregnant or nursing.

What Causes an Electrolyte Imbalance?

Electrolyte imbalances are caused by electrolyte blood levels that are either too high or low. These imbalances can lead to health problems. They may even be fatal in rare instances.(7)

The following may contribute to an imbalance in your electrolytes:

  • Highly intensive exercise
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Eating disorders
  • Certain medicines, such as diuretics
  • Fasting
  • Following certain diets, such as the keto diet
  • Severe burns
  • Kidney disorders

While mild imbalances might not cause many symptoms in some cases, more severe ones can lead to a variety of symptoms. The specific electrolyte in question, and by how much it is out of balance (either too high or low), will determine the symptoms a person experiences.

Signs for a serious imbalance in a key nutrient include:

  • Weakness and/or fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Urinating frequently or less frequently
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Poor cognitive function.
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Severe thirst
  • Fainting
  • Seizures(8)

These symptoms should be reported to a doctor immediately.

How Do You Maintain Your Electrolyte Balance?

Eating a healthy diet that’s rich in vegetables, fruits, and other sources of these vital nutrients is the best way to ensure your body has the right amount of electrolytes. It is important to keep hydrated but not to drink too much.

People should avoid exercising during the hottest hours of the day. Before and after intense workouts, you should drink water or an electrolyte beverage.

Individuals who have been experiencing diarrhea or vomiting should seek advice from their doctor or pharmacist regarding taking rehydration drinks.

Remember to discuss any symptoms of electrolyte imbalances with your doctor immediately. By acting quickly, you can prevent an otherwise mild imbalance from turning into something more severe.

Conclusion

Electrolytes are essential minerals found in many foods and beverages that are vital for healthy nerve function and muscle function, as well as other bodily functions. A balanced diet, adequate fluid intake, watching salt intake, and avoidance of strenuous exercise in hot weather will help most people maintain an electrolyte balance.

People who are severely dehydrated from illness or intense exercise may need to use a  rehydration supplement or sports drink to help re-balance their electrolytes levels. Individuals who have concerns their electrolyte levels should speak to a health professional.


References:

  1. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/
  2. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/
  3. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Phosphorus-HealthProfessional/
  4. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Potassium-HealthProfessional/
  5. https://sodiumbreakup.heart.org/salt-vs-sodium
  6. https://www.nal.usda.gov/sites/default/files/fnic_uploads/water_full_report.pdf
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3043756/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4129840/

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