Electrolyte Replacement… Just for Athletes?

Olympians Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles and Michael Phelps in Rio

Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Kerri Walsh Jennings, Katie Ledecky…these are all names held in great esteem in my household. Not only do these phenomenal athletes unite their country as we gather round our televisions each night cheering them on to success, but they also inspire us with their talent and work ethic. They arouse in us a desire to do more…be more.

It’s no surprise these Olympic champions (and other pro athletes) are coveted by brands around the world as spokespeople. Imagine: you see these fit men and women guzzling down their sport drink of choice post-workout as sweat drips down their face and body…and we believe, if we want to look and perform like them, we should drink “so-and-so-ade” or “power-something” too. Clever marketing indeed.

There is no shortage of options available when it comes to electrolyte replacement – Gatorade, Powerade, Vitaminwater…just to name a few. These products are often marketed as something everyone needs, but who is it that truly benefits from electrolyte replacement? And when it is necessary, what are your best options?

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Let’s start with the basics – what is an electrolyte? Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. These minerals have an effect on numerous body functions including muscle contraction, fluid balance, and blood pressure control. We get electrolytes through food and we lose them through bodily fluids – primarily sweat and urine. When certain electrolyte levels are low in the body you can experience symptoms such as fatigue, muscle cramps, heart palpitations, dizziness, or a headache.

For the average person, with an activity level anywhere from sedentary to moderately active, electrolyte replacement through anything but food is usually unnecessary. Their losses will rarely exceed what can be naturally replaced through a healthy diet and proper hydration. However, there are situations where certain people may benefit from an additional electrolyte replacement. This can include people doing prolonged strenuous activity (such as our aforementioned athletes), people working or exercising in the heat (where they may be sweating excessively), and people who have been ill (and may be dehydrated from vomiting/diarrhea).

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Should you find yourself in one of these categories, thinking you might find value in additional electrolyte replacement, here are some recommendations on which ones to choose (and avoid).

  • Gatorade and Powerade – AVOID: Sure, these products have added electrolytes, but they’re also loaded with sugar and calories, among other unnecessary ingredients like food coloring. Unless you’re running a marathon and needing a portable form of easily absorbable carbohydrates (and even then you COULD get what you need through real food instead of refined sugar), then this is not the option for you. And as for their lower calorie alternatives, Powerade Zero and G2, they’ve swapped the sugar for artificial sweeteners – better to steer clear of these as well.
  • Propel – CAUTION: Their unflavored electrolyte water is a good option with no added sugars or sweeteners, but all the flavored options (waters and powders) contain artificial sweeteners.
  • Vitaminwater – CAUTION: These drinks are focused less on actual electrolytes and more on water soluble vitamins. The regular flavors have a lot of sugar and are better to avoid. Their Vitaminwater Zero line is a better option because they at least use stevia and sugar alcohols instead of artificial sweeteners and more natural colorants than Gatorade/Powerade.
  • Sobe Lifewater – DECENT: Sobe’s zero calorie vitamin drink is similar to Vitaminwater’s with its use of stevia and sugar alcohol and more natural colorants.
  • Coconut Water – GOOD: While not calorie-free or sugar-free, coconut water contains natural electrolytes and sugar with no added artificial ingredients (assuming you buy an unflavored version). However, you would not want to replace plain water with coconut water for regular daily hydration as you could seriously rack up some sugar grams.
  • Ultima Replenisher – GOOD: Zero calorie powders sweetened with stevia and using natural flavors and colorants.
  • Nuun – GOOD: With multiple tablet options available, you can choose the one that fits your need. Nuun Active is their basic electrolyte providing only 10 calories with the use of more natural sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit as well as natural colorants. If you need the carbs for endurance activity, check out Plus for Nuun.
  • Emergen-C ElectroMix – GOOD: It’s sodium-free, but has a decent amount of your other electrolytes for only 10 calories; sweetened with stevia.

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You can also make your own electrolyte replacement drink using ingredients like fresh fruit, plain or coconut water, and sea salt. Check out these recipes from everyday roots for ideas!

Turns out, electrolytes are not just for athletes. Go ahead and try them out after a long workout or hot day in the sun. However, I think you’ll find that most of the time plain water, fruits and veggies will get the job done just fine.

Contributed by Rebekah Blakely, RD (Nutrition Director, Wellfit Malibu)

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