Electrolyte Supplements: Necessary or Just Hype?

Electrolyte products

If you scroll Instagram, Facebook, or even listen to your favorite podcasts, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in the marketing for electrolytes and electrolyte supplements. These come in a variety of forms, including liquid classics like Gatorade or Powerade to the newer powdered and tablet versions now advertised like LMNT, Liquid IV, Nuun, and others.

While most of us understand electrolytes are important and need to be replaced if we sweat profusely, there is still a lot of confusion around how and when to use these.

One of the main issues is that no two electrolyte supplements are the same. They all have different concentrations of electrolytes and other ingredients. How do you know which one to choose, and, is it safe?

Hopefully this article will help you understand just a bit more about what electrolytes are, how we get them in our diet, and what to choose if we are going to add a supplement that is safe and effective. 

Should electrolytes be on your shopping list? Let’s find out.

What are electrolytes?

Simply put, electrolytes are minerals that are able to conduct electricity when dissolved in water. Many crucial biochemical processes rely on these electric impulses, particularly those regulating nerve and muscle function as well as fluid balance in our cells. 

In fact, any time our muscles contract, including the beating of our hearts, we are using electrolytes. Electrolyte deficiencies or imbalances can cause issues such as water retention, muscle cramping, poor energy, lightheadedness, and even arrhythmias of the heart.

The main electrolytes:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Chloride
  • Phosphate

What are the symptoms of electrolyte imbalance?

Experiencing symptoms related to nerve and muscle function or poor fluid balance can be a sign you are low in electrolytes. Typical symptoms of electrolyte deficiencies may include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue, lethargy
  • Confusion, dizziness
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Irregular heartbeat

How do you know if you may be deficient in electrolytes?

Because electrolytes are easily lost through sweating, heavy exercising (usually over an hour) or being in very hot conditions can be a cause of electrolyte deficiency.

Also, people on diuretics or those losing significant fluid through vomiting or diarrhea are at higher risk for electrolyte imbalances. And of course, anyone who doesn’t like water or has a hard time remembering to drink water, should look for symptoms as well. 

Additionally, people with congestive heart failure, kidney disorders, and those with thyroid disorders may have trouble balancing fluid in their body and therefore are at risk for symptoms related to low electrolyte status.

Be aware that drinking too much water can also cause electrolyte imbalances. By adding a high volume of fluids too quickly, electrolytes can become diluted in the blood and therefore don’t work as they should.

How to prevent electrolyte imbalances

The most important way to prevent electrolyte issues is to eat a healthy diet! All of the important minerals we need can be found in food. A varied diet rich in whole foods is the best way to make sure you are meeting all your needs.

Also make sure to stay well hydrated. Avoid drinking large amounts of fluids all at once to meet your fluid goals. It is important to be drinking small amounts of water all throughout the day, which keeps your electrolytes better balanced.

Foods that provide electrolytes:

Magnesium: Nuts, seeds, leafy greens, peanuts, oats, soy

Potassium: Dairy products, bananas, potatoes, coconut water, avocado, spinach, beans, watermelon, beets

Calcium: Dairy products, legumes, nuts, seeds, leafy greens

Chloride: Tomatoes, lettuce, celery, olives, seaweed, table salt

Phosphate: Dairy products, meats, salmon, beans, lentils, oats, nuts, potatoes

Sodium: Good ol’ salt! While we need salt in our diet, don’t go overboard. Most of us only need a teaspoon per day or less.

When food is not enough: Electrolyte supplements

While food should be our first go-to, in some cases, it’s just not enough. Electrolyte supplements can be a great tool to help fill those gaps and make sure our bodies can perform at their best.

The problem is …. There are SO many products on the market right now, and every electrolyte supplement is different. And there are so many different forms, from powders to tablets to liquids. Picking the right product can be extremely tricky and confusing.

Check out the stats on these popular brands

Powerade

Orange flavor, 12oz

  • Calories: 130
  • Carbohydrates: 34g (from high-fructose corn syrup)
  • Sodium: 400mg
  • Potassium: 80mg (4% of RDA)
  • Magnesium: Less than 2% of RDA

Also included (no amounts provided): Mono-potassium phosphate, calcium chloride, yellow #5 and #6

Pros: The added carbs may be helpful for those in endurance sports, and there is a moderate amount of sodium.

Cons: The high amount of carbs may not be ideal for most, and there are low amounts of potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Also contain artificial food dyes.

 

Liquid IV

Strawberry flavor, 1 packet

  • Calories: 45
  • Carbohydrates: 11g
  • Sodium: 500mg
  • Potassium: 380mg
  • Magnesium: 0

Also included (no amounts provided): Dipotassium phosphate, stevia, natural flavors

Pros: A moderate amount of calories and carbs along with a good dose of sodium and potassium.

Cons: No magnesium or calcium. Artificial sweeteners and natural flavors may not be desired.

 

Ultima

Orange flavor, 1 packet

  • Calories: 0
  • Carbohydrates: 0
  • Sodium: 55mg
  • Calcium: 65mg
  • Potassium: 250mg
  • Magnesium: 100mg
  • Phosphorous: 70mg
  • Chloride: 78mg

Also included (no amounts provided): Natural flavors, stevia

Pros: Has a wider range of electrolytes provided than most. Lower electrolyte amounts mean it would be safe to have several packets per day if desired.

Cons: Has lower amounts of electrolytes than most, especially sodium. Artificial sweeteners and natural flavors may not be desired.

 

Jigsaw Pickleball Electrolyte powder

Orange flavor, 1 packet

  • Calories: 10
  • Carbohydrates: 11g
  • Sodium: 90mg
  • Potassium: 800mg
  • Magnesium: 50mg
  • Chloride: 900mg

Added ingredients: (no amounts provided): Stevia, monk fruit, natural flavors

Pros: One of the only ones reviewed that provides data on chloride and has the highest amount of potassium. 

Cons: Sodium is pretty low for those who may experience significant fluid loss. No calcium. Artificial sweeteners and natural flavors may not be desired.

 

Nuun Tablets

Sport, Lemon-lime

  • Calories: 15
  • Carbohydrates: 2g
  • Sodium: 300mg 
  • Potassium: 150mg
  • Magnesium: 25mg
  • Calcium: 13mg

Added ingredients (no amounts provided): Dextrose, natural flavors, stevia, avocado oil

Pros: Electrolyte amounts are fairly moderate so having multiple tablets per day is probably safe. 

Cons: Artificial sweeteners and other added ingredients may not be desired.

 

LMNT

Citrus Salt, 1 packet

  • Calories: 10
  • Carbohydrates: 4g
  • Sodium: 1,000mg
  • Potassium: 200mg
  • Magnesium: 60mg
  • Calcium: 0

Also included (no amounts provided): Natural flavors, stevia

Pros: The highest amount of sodium of those reviewed; may be ideal for those experiencing significant fluid loss. Moderate amounts of other electrolytes.

Cons: The high sodium content is not ideal for everyone.

Comparing the brands

Wow! So different, right? Which one is best?

The answer is … it depends! You already saw that coming, I’m sure. It comes down to your activity level, health concerns, and your individual needs. 

Someone playing sports or participating in endurance events might want an option with more added carbohydrates AND more sodium, while someone who is relatively inactive but gets dehydrated easily may want one with moderate electrolyte amounts and much lower in added carbohydrates.

This is where the old adage comes in: If in doubt, consult a professional! 

Supplements should always be matched to your unique needs. Choosing the wrong formulation and taking the wrong amounts can be harmful and create even more of an imbalance.

Also, don’t forget that some of these are adding significant amounts of carbohydrates and sodium. If you are diabetic, have kidney disease, suffer from high blood pressure, or have any diagnosed condition, always consult your doctor first.

What electrolyte supplements do I use?

To be perfectly honest, I use a combo of these when needed, and I certainly do not take them every day. After a run, for example, I often reach for Jigsaw’s Pickleball electrolyte because I appreciate the moderate sodium with a bigger boost of potassium.

I use Pickleball for hiking as well, but I also carry some Nuun tablets because they are easy and taste good. Given they have a pretty low dose of electrolytes, you can take several per day to keep yourself well hydrated.

I would be careful with LMNT due to the high sodium content. While it’s no problem for anyone doing rigorous activity, it’s not the best choice if you are not sweating heavily. Additionally, I’d avoid Powerade as well unless you really need those added sugars. A better choice would be another electrolyte product along with carbs from fruit juice or another source.

Adding it all up

Are electrolyte supplements something you need? That definitely depends on your diet and lifestyle. Start with adding electrolyte-rich foods first, then add electrolyte supplements if needed.

Before you go too far with supplements, always consult your practitioner first so you are assured that the product you choose and the amounts you are using are safe. Electrolytes in really high amounts can be dangerous, so consult a professional, especially if you have any health conditions that already affect electrolyte levels in your body.

Hopefully these tips and ideas will help you stay well-hydrated for all the activities you hope to enjoy in the summer and beyond!

 

**Need some recipe ideas to get you started? Check out these electrolyte-rich options.**

Spinach and Kale Salad with Feta and Pumpkin Seeds

Baked Salmon with Sweet Potatoes and Greek Yogurt Sauce

Spinach and Banana Smoothie

 

Danielle VenHuizen

Registered Dietitian, Certified LEAP Therapist