Despite the fact that Labor Day is officially behind us, in much of the U.S., we are still knee-deep in hot, humid summer weather. It seems like wherever you turn, there are reminders about the importance of hydration—and for good reason. Staying hydrated is keys to optimal health, says Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Real Nutrition. “Hydration, in general, is important for so many bodily functions including regulating body temperature, lubricating joints, skin, organs, transporting nutrients into cells, detoxifying the body by removing waste, preventing infections, and promoting skin integrity,” she explains. “Additionally, it helps to boost energy, ward off headaches, and improve mood, sleep, and cognition.”
So what is the best way to stay hydrated, you ask? Indeed, water is pretty A+ and unparalleled in this department. But electrolytes—a group of minerals found in your blood—are integral to keeping your body functioning properly, too. If you lose large amounts of these electrolytes through sweat, exercise, or illness (e.g. vomiting or diarrhea), you’re going to feel pretty dehydrated and lousy.
You’ve certainly heard of electrolytes, as they’re one of the original darlings of the supplement industry. There’s no shortage of neon-colored sports drinks out there promising to recharge your body and lead to increased performance, both on and off the field (or yoga mat). But do you really need to supplement with electrolyte drinks and powders to feel your best? Shapiro gives us the scoop on what electrolytes really are, which foods are naturally high in electrolytes, and when you might want to consider adding in supplemental sources.
What are electrolytes, exactly?
Electrolytes are tiny charged particles that dissolve in our body’s fluids; they serve a number of functions that are key optimal health. “Electrolytes help to manage the water levels in and outside of the cells and also promote muscle contraction and relaxation,” says Shaprio. The main electrolytes that we think about when it comes to nutrition are potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium. “When you sweat, you lose both water and electrolytes, so you need to rehydrate with both in order to meet water balance for optimal performance and function,” Shapiro explains.
Do you need to supplement to get enough electrolytes?
Before you sprint to the store to buy a sports drink, know that there are tons of electrolytes naturally found in foods that you are probably eating anyway. Delicious ingredients like leafy greens and avocados (more on this later) can be excellent ways to replenish electrolytes, no neon dye needed.
“Most individuals get enough electrolytes through food,” says Shapiro. “Only during times of extreme sports and excessive sweating are drink supplements truly required.” According to Shapiro, the reason why you might want to consider supplemental electrolytes in those scenarios is because of the quick digestion of drinks as opposed to foods. When you lose a lot of fluids quickly (i.e. through intense exercise), you need to refuel fast, and the slower digestion process food goes through can take a little too long to provide on-the-spot replenishment.
When it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the warm summer months, Shapiro says for the most part, it is just about sticking to the basics of a healthy diet and adequate water consumption. “If you eat a balanced diet and drink enough water—ideally enough to keep your urine a very light yellow like lemonade—you should remain adequately hydrated,” she says. Her water recommendation is to drink 64-80 ounces a day. And if you plan to go for a long exercise session or exercise in heat, bring a healthy electrolyte drink to make sure you keep your body stocked with the minerals it needs to prevent muscle cramping and give you energy to finish strong. Good options include Nuun tablets, LMNT drink mix, or coconut water, which Shapiro refers to as “Nature’s Gatorade.”
Top foods high in electrolytes
Anytime you need a boost, focus on these foods high in electrolytes to keep you fueled and functioning at your very best. Best part? Because they’re whole foods, you’ll be reaping plenty of other vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients when you eat them.
Potassium helps your nerves and muscles do their job, and helps avoid cramping. Good sources include:
- Leafy greens
- Sweet potato
Sodium is key for maintaining hydration, but the truth is that most of us get enough of this through cooked foods, and especially in processed foods. If you follow a low carb diet or eat mostly home-cooked meals, make sure to use enough high-quality salt in the kitchen to keep levels up. Shapiro advises to be careful of sodium intake if you have blood pressure issues, so check with your doctor. A few healthy food sources she recommends include:
- Coconut water
While calcium is best known for its role in bone health, it is also a key electrolyte that is essential for muscle contraction and maintaining a normal heart rhythm. Good sources include:
- Leafy greens
Magnesium is a critical electrolyte that plays a key role in helping transport oxygen throughout your entire body. Good sources include:
- Whole wheat bread or noodles
- Dark chocolate
- Black beans
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