If you’ve ever gotten a stitch in your side while running or a leg cramp on a bike ride, an electrolyte imbalance may be to blame. Electrolytes are minerals that, when combined with fluids like water, spark electrical impulses in your body. These impulses help fuel your body’s cells to keep you functioning. They’re a normal part of a healthy diet—the major electrolytes are sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. A good balance of each supports healthy muscles, brain function, hydration, blood flow, and more.
But you can develop an imbalance of electrolytes—particularly sodium—when you sweat during exercise. You can also deplete these minerals from losing body fluids while you’re sick. And you’ll feel it: An electrolyte imbalance can cause muscle cramps, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, or a pounding heartbeat, say nutritionists Julie Burns, MS, RDN, LDN, CCN, and Alexandria Cotie, RD, LDN.
Meet the Expert
- Julie Burns, MS, RDN, LDN, CCN, is a Chicago-based integrative sports nutritionist, licensed and registered dietitian, and board-certified clinical nutritionist. She’s the founder of SportFuel, Inc.
- Monique Ryan, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN, CLT, is a sports nutritionist, licensed and registered dietitian, and certified specialist in sports dietetics based in Chicago.
- Alexandria Cotie, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian and senior sports nutritionist at SportFuel, Inc. in Chicago.
“Electrolytes are the electrical spark that literally moves you. But as you become dehydrated during a workout, your blood becomes thicker as it loses water, your temperature starts to rise because there's not enough fluid to produce sweat to cool you, and your heart starts to beat heavily in an effort to keep up,” says Cotie. “At this point, your muscles aren't showing up.”
Luckily you can use foods and drinks to recharge, help your muscles stay active, and potentially even improve your performance. If you’re an endurance athlete, do hours-long workouts, exercise in the heat, or sweat a lot, you may need to replenish electrolytes more often than a recreational exerciser, says nutritionist Monique Ryan, MS, RDN, LDN.
Building a healthy balance of electrolytes starts outside of the gym. “Just as it's important to fill your car's gas tank before hitting the road, it's as important to get ahead of your hydration and electrolyte status before heading into a workout,” says Cotie. Read on to browse the foods and drinks the nutritionists recommend to keep your electrolytes in balance.
Contrary to popular belief, our bodies need a certain level of salt to function well. “Though we don't want excess sodium in our diet, we do need some,” says Ryan. “Just avoid highly processed foods with a lot of added sodium, like fast food, and opt for more natural sources.” Cotie recommends salting foods to taste with unrefined sea salt, like Selina Naturally.
Nuts and Seeds
Snack on nuts and seeds like almonds, peanuts, cashews, and sunflower seeds (or their nut butter counterparts) for magnesium and phosphorus. The protein doesn’t hurt to boost your energy, either. Burns suggests Go Raw sprouted-seed snacks for a tasty bite.
Electrolyte-rich chia seeds absorb up to 10 times their weight in water, making them both a nutritious source of minerals and a powerful hydrator. Mix them into your drink or smoothie, sprinkle them on oatmeal or toast, or soak them in water to create your own hydrating gel drink.
Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat them, the more... electrolytes you’ll have. Kidney beans, soybeans, black beans, white beans, lima beans, and are nutritious to eat by themselves or tossed into a salad, dip, or another favorite dish. Try Eden Foods’ beans—they’re pressure cooked and thus easier on your digestion, says Burns.
The vegetarians are onto something: bake or stir fry this fermented soybean product to fill up on calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.
Bananas are hydrating, packed with electrolytes like potassium, portable, and easy on the gut during exercise. There’s even research to show that eating bananas before or during a big workout can help keep you fueled.
Watermelon is another hydrating and potassium-rich snack. Try sprinkling some salt on top to enhance its natural flavor and get some sodium before a workout.
Munch on orange slices or sip some fresh-squeezed orange juice to load up on water, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
If you’re craving avocado toast for brunch, consider this the sign you were looking for. Avocados are a delicious, heart-healthy fruit to eat plain, on bread, or in your favorite bowl or salad. They’re packed with potassium and magnesium, says Burns, two minerals athletes often deplete due to stress on the body.
Leafy greens like spinach, kale, chard, beet greens, and more are part of a healthy diet, and it’s no different when it comes to electrolytes. They’re rich in potassium, magnesium, and healthy carbohydrates to help you better absorb those minerals. Stock up on all the greens you can by working them into your favorite recipes like salads or bibimbap bowls, says Cotie.
Besides being delicious, sweet potatoes are chock-full of nutrients like potassium, sodium, and vitamins. Dress them up with a sprinkle of salt or other electrolyte-packed ingredients like cheese or nuts for a meal or snack.
Why settle for just one fruit or vegetable? Reap all the electrolyte benefits of the above foods by blending them into a smoothie to drink at home or on the go. Stick to as many plant ingredients as possible to avoid added sugars.
Organic Pressed Raw Veggie Juices
If cooked veggies aren’t your thing, load up on nutrient-dense produce with a fresh-pressed juice. Pick a drink with vegetable (and fruit) flavors to your liking to have as a snack or to rehydrate and recharge post-workout.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to gulp electrolytes without having to make a smoothie or visit a juice shop, try coconut water. It’s super hydrating, tasty, and full of minerals. Burns and Cotie recommend Harmless Harvest coconut water and COCO5 coconut-based sports drinks for extra electrolytes during or after exercise.
Oat milk, coconut milk, and other plant-based milk alternatives are packed with magnesium and potassium and can be easier on the gut for anyone sensitive to dairy. Try a glass of your favorite kind after exercise to rehydrate and replenish nutrients. Burns likes Califia Farms plant milks and So Delicious plain coconut milk.
Organic Green Tea
Green tea multitasks as a hydrating beverage and energy drink, says Burns. It’s loaded with minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants to support brain function and a healthy metabolism. The natural caffeine also helps improve endurance and decreases inflammation. Pick your favorite flavor and preferred caffeine level in Drink Rebellious’ line of organic teas.
Sometimes you might need more electrolytes than your everyday diet can provide, like in the case of intense athletic training or exercise that lasts longer than 75 minutes. Browse these nutritionist-recommended options for fueling before, during, and after your workout.
“Sports drinks are the easiest ways to replenish your electrolytes during a workout,” says Ryan. “They have carbs, electrolytes, and fluid, so it's the complete package of what you need during longer exercise.” She suggests picking a sports drink that has sodium in it and tastes good to you. If you’re an endurance athlete or working out for long periods of time, Ryan recommends Gatorade Endurance for its higher sodium content. NOOMA organic sports drinks, Nuun hydration products, and Ultima Replenisher are some other options.
Skratch Labs Wellness Hydration Drink Mix
“Make sure to pair electrolytes with their favorite side-kick, carbohydrates, in order to fuel quickly,” says Cotie. “And make sure they’re in the right format and proportion. Avoid fructose and maltodextrin. Choose small amounts of glucose and sucrose. Keep your sodium to potassium ratio at about three to one.” Skratch Labs Wellness Hydration Drink Mix fits the bill. Available in seven flavors, just mix a scoop of this powder into water and go.
Generation UCAN SuperStarch and UCAN Hydrate
Cotie recommends a combination of two UCAN drink mixes—one for carbs and the other for electrolytes—to recharge during intense training sessions. “Some hydration products can cause major gut discomfort or heaviness, increase your need to urinate or even contribute to dehydration,” she says. This pair will fuel you while going easy on your tummy.
Aussie Trace Minerals
If you’re a salty sweater, Aussie Trace Minerals drops can help you replenish your electrolytes, says Cotie. Add a few drops to your water, smoothie, or protein shake before or during prolonged exercise.