The Best Electrolyte Drinks According to a Dietitian

Despite what the commercials on television would have you believe, electrolyte drinks haven’t been around forever. In fact, the first electrolyte drink, Gatorade, wasn’t invented until the 1960s. Prior to the invention of commercial electrolyte drinks, people used to get their electrolytes primarily from drinking water and food. Today, bottled water is over-purified to the point that most of these essential minerals are removed, which can contribute to dehydration. As a result, you can experience dehydration even if you are drinking plenty of water. While the benefits of electrolyte drinks for athletic performance are well known thanks to their presence at every gym and sporting event, anyone can benefit from drinks that are designed to replace electrolytes. Whether you’re an office executive or a gym rat, electrolytes can help you maximize your mental and physical performance no matter where you go. However, not all electrolyte drinks are healthy. The best electrolyte drinks according to a dietician might surprise you.

Why do people use electrolyte drinks?

People use electrolyte drinks for many different reasons, but the most common one is to prevent dehydration and restore the proper balance of electrolytes to the body. Dehydration is a common condition that occurs when we lose more fluids than we take in, usually through urine or sweat.  Having the appropriate amount of fluid in the body is critical to staying healthy and feeling your best, as without enough water and electrolytes, our bodies are unable to perform essential functions. Whether you have lost electrolytes during a tough workout, after a big night out, or during a long day on the jobsite, anyone can experience dehydration at any time. One of the most common causes of dehydration is electrolyte imbalance. There are seven different electrolytes found in the human body, including sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate. Of these minerals, sodium, potassium, and magnesium are found in the largest amounts and are considered the major electrolytes. Dehydration can occur even if  you drink lots of fluids but do not replace electrolytes, and it can also occur as a result of chronic vomiting, diarrhea, or heavy sweating. Dehydration is easy to recognize once you know the signs. Common signs of dehydration include:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Dry mouth
  • Diminished urine input
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Dark yellow urine

Severe dehydration can be dangerous, and in some cases, fatal. Signs of severe dehydration include:

  • Quickening heart rate
  • Fever
  • Confusion
  • Reduced elasticity of the skin
  • Sunken eyes
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Coma
  • Lethargy
  • Shock
  • Seizure

The human body is made up of about 60 percent water, which is why it is so important to stay properly hydrated. Without enough water to function properly, the body can succumb to severe hydration if the condition is not treated. However, dehydration is almost always preventable except in extreme circumstances. In order to prevent dehydration, you will need to ingest the appropriate amounts of both fluids and electrolytes to support you as you go about your daily tasks, workouts, and job. The first step in preventing dehydration is drinking plenty of water, but water alone may not be sufficient in some situations. Drinking too much water can cause an imbalance of sodium called hyponatremia when sodium is not replaced in the appropriate amounts. Drinking electrolyte drinks helps safely prevent dehydration by ensuring that you have the right ratio of electrolytes to fluids in the body, but not all electrolyte drinks are created equal, and some are downright unhealthy. 

What are the best electrolyte drinks according to a dietitian?

Dietitians recognize the importance of electrolytes in order to maintain essential body functions and ensure the proper balance of fluids in the body, but they also are wary of all of the additives in many commercial electrolyte drinks. Commercial sports drinks and electrolyte beverages often focus on tasting good and winning over new customers first and providing hydration benefits and maximizing performance second, which can leave you in the lurch if you’re relying on those drinks for hydration. The first priority of a healthy electrolyte drink should be to provide the maximum amount of hydration benefits while minimizing the use of unnecessary calories, added sugar, carbohydrates, and artificial and synthetic flavors and colors. Electrolytes are naturally occurring minerals that don’t contain any calories, carbohydrates, or sugar, so it might seem odd that so many electrolyte drinks today seem to be loaded with them. The healthiest electrolyte drinks contain sodium, potassium, and magnesium, the three most important electrolytes in the body, while minimizing or even eliminating carbohydrates, sugar, and calories. Some electrolyte drinks may also contain other electrolytes, including calcium, phosphate, bicarbonate, and chloride, as well as helpful vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C. Electrolyte concentrates, such as Daylyte from Total Hydration, are one way to get the electrolytes you want without all of the extra junk that can pack on the pounds and without upsetting your stomach in the process. In addition to sodium, potassium, and magnesium, Daylyte also contains zinc and chloride, which have been shown to support recovery and help regulate the body’s natural processes. That means you can get back to doing the sports and activities you love even faster. Electrolyte concentrates offer rapid electrolyte replacement that help athletes develop muscle power while reducing the effects of heat, stress, and cramping on the body. One easy way to know if the electrolyte drink you’ve grabbed is healthy? Make sure that you can read and identify all of the ingredients on the label. Electrolytes should be derived from natural sources, like sea minerals, rather than chemicals.

What ingredients should you avoid in electrolyte drinks?

You might be surprised to find that the last ingredients that you want in an electrolyte drink are often the first ones listed on the label. For people who are concerned about their health and fitness, chugging down a bunch of junk just to rehydrate doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Unfortunately, that means you’ll need to skip over the majority of commercial electrolyte drinks at your local grocery store, but you do have plenty of options. Be sure to steer clear of these common ingredients in electrolyte drinks:

  • Added sugar
  • Artificial colors and flavors
  • Chemical ingredients that you can’t pronounce

You’ll never need an electrolyte drink that contains any of the ingredients listed above in order to rehydrate properly, because they simply do not contribute to hydration. In some cases, consuming an electrolyte drink that contains calories or carbohydrates can be beneficial, particularly for endurance athletes who need added energy during a long workout. However, this is really a matter of convenience, because calories and carbohydrates also don’t impact your hydration levels but instead offer fuel for your workout. Unfortunately, added ingredients above and beyond the seven essential electrolytes usually aren’t helpful and won’t make a difference in restoring your fluid levels back to normal. In fact, these ingredients can contribute to stomach upset, particularly during a tough workout, when you’re sick, or if you’re feeling hungover. Sugars and carbs won’t help you perform your best, so leave electrolyte drinks that contain them on the shelf where they belong. 

When should you use an electrolyte drink?

If you pay attention to the commercials on tv, it might seem like the only time to use an electrolyte drink is during a football game or after a hard workout. However, there are lots of different situations where electrolyte drinks and supplements can be beneficial. You don’t need to exercise regularly in order to benefit from the use of an electrolyte drink, especially when you choose a healthy electrolyte drink that doesn’t contain added sugars, carbohydrates, and calories and steers clear of artificial ingredients. Remember, electrolyte drinks haven’t been around forever, and the reality is that humans used to receive all of the electrolytes we needed from the foods we eat, and more importantly, the water we consume. Today, however, bottled water is over-purified to the point that nearly all electrolytes are removed, so people need to get their electrolytes from other sources. Healthy electrolyte drinks are helpful not only for athletes, but also for people who work in hot conditions either indoors or outdoors, as well as those who are salty or profuse sweaters. If you’ve had a late night out and had a few drinks, electrolyte drinks can also help minimize those horrible hangover feelings, reduce your fatigue, and improve your focus during the workday. Electrolyte drinks also help reduce headaches and nausea that are commonly associated with dehydration, including those caused by hangovers, and they also offer immune support if you are feeling less than your best. Senior citizens and young children, the age groups most likely to experience dehydration due to inadequate fluid and electrolyte intake, can often benefit from healthy electrolyte drinks as well.