Electrolytes: What and Why?

By Angela Bates a Recent ASU Nutrition Student

We all know electrolytes are important and that they do something for us, but their exact function and importance is little known. More than just what can be found in a bottle of Gatorade, electrolytes keep your cells functioning and the balance is delicate. Knowing what electrolytes are, how they affect the body, and where to get them in your diet is good to know.

Electrolytes are the minerals that have an electric charge. In other words, they can be ionized, which means they can conduct electricity. The electrolytes in our bodies keep the fluid balance within a specific range, move nutrients into cells and waste out of cells, keep the pH (acid-base) levels balanced, and—as anyone who has had a leg cramp after running has found out—they help conduct the electrical impulses in the body’s nerves, muscles (heart included). They keep your muscles contracting and relaxing at the correct rates and even play a role in blood clotting. Without electrolytes, your heart would not beat.

The electrolytes in the body are sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, bicarbonate, copper, zinc, magnesium, iron, manganese, phosphate, molybdenum, and chromium. The seven most important electrolytes in the human body are sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, chloride, and bicarbonate. Electrolytes can be found in the blood, tissues, cerebrospinal fluid, and urine and they enter the body through the digestive tract. So, the electrolytes you eat and drink are absorbed when consumed through normal digestion. They are lost mostly through urination, but also through sweating and excretion, which is why excessive sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea can cause a drastic loss in electrolytes.

One thing that makes electrolyte balance so difficult for the body is that an overabundance on of electrolyte can cause severe drops in another. Similarly, a drop in a particular electrolyte can trigger a spike in another. This can have many symptoms, which will be covered later. The body tries to return to balance itself, but sometimes, we need to take in more electrolytes to help. Each individual electrolyte has its own special functions.

Sodium is not the enemy, but it does have to be consumed with care. For instance, a heart patient commonly told that they should avoid salt as much as possible. Sodium naturally occurs in many foods in small amounts, but in packaged or prepared foods, the levels can be astronomical. Sodium is very important, as it regulates the pressure gradient of fluids between cells. It’s fairly common knowledge that excess sodium causes blood pressure to rise, but too little sodium can be fatal as well, by swelling in the brain and red blood cells. Too little sodium can be caused by overconsuming fluids like water, which dilutes electrolytes in the body, or congestive heart failure.

Can a banana prevent cramps after your morning run? Bananas are a well-known source of potassium, which interacts with the same pumps as sodium in the cells. Potassium, along with calcium, helps tell neurons and muscle fibers when to rest or contract. It also plays a large part in the water and acid-base balance of the body. As with all the other electrolytes, too little or too much potassium can be dangerous, though getting too much potassium from food sources is almost unheard of unless there is an underlying medical condition. With too much potassium, the heart will not relax after a short time, which is a critical medical situation that requires emergency care. In some cases, a lack of potassium can result from too much sodium intake, so being careful not to consume a lot of sodium helps keep these levels balanced.

Chloride plays a very important role in maintaining proper hydration. It is also a component of stomach acid and keeps the electric charge of the fluids in the body neutral. Chloride ions are secreted and reabsorbed with sodium ions. High levels can occur with dehydration and can be seen in individuals who swallow sea water. Bicarbonate is formed from carbon dioxide and water and keeps the acid-base balance of the systems balanced. Phosphate is an important component of bones and cell membranes, among other things. Bones and teeth bind about 85 percent of phosphate in the body. Frequent use of antacids can lower phosphate greatly. The body also requires vitamin D to absorb phosphorus, so receiving enough sunlight is important for the balance.

Two extremely important electrolytes which compete for absorption if consumed together are magnesium and calcium. Strangely enough, an abundance of magnesium taken in with calcium with cause the magnesium to absorb more actively, while higher amounts of calcium will cause both magnesium and calcium to absorb poorly. According to a study in Shanghai, China, the ratio of calcium to magnesium in the body may be more important in disease and mortality than calcium levels alone, suggesting that both are important in specific amounts for the body.

Calcium provides bone hardness, where excess calcium is stored for use when it is needed in the blood. Calcium ions assist with muscle contraction and blood clotting, as well as the release of hormones and neurotransmitters. It is absorbed with the help of vitamin D, meaning a vitamin D deficiency can lead to a calcium deficiency, so both are important to prevent osteoporosis. Calcium supplements are being studied to prove or disprove a link between calcium supplementation and heart disease or stroke. Many experts feel there are too many factors at play, but recommend getting calcium from foods unless directed by your doctor.

According to the National Library of Medicine, magnesium is required for over 300 biochemical reactions in the human body. It helps in energy production, protein use, glucose levels, bone strength, immunity, nerve function, and heartbeat regulation. Researchers have been studying magnesium possibly treating and preventing several diseases and disorders like heart disease and diabetes. If you have a high intake of calcium, protein, and vitamin D, you may need extra magnesium to restore levels. Levels can be an issue in those with diabetes, intestinal disorders, and the elderly.

So now we know what electrolytes are and why they are all necessary for the body. What are some of the signs you may have an imbalance? The signs and symptoms are different depending on which electrolytes are high or low, but some common symptoms include:

  • Irregular heartbeat or palpitations
  • Muscle cramps and weakness
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Numbness
  • Fatigue

Causes of electrolyte imbalance can include:

  • Dehydration
  • Overhydration
  • Diuretic use
  • Certain medications (such as proton pump inhibitors, antacids, and chemotherapy drugs)
  • Gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting and diarrhea
  • Sweating or frequent urination

Whatever the cause, an electrolyte imbalance can be a medical emergency, so seek medical attention if there is a possibility of one. To prevent imbalance, staying hydrated without overdoing the water drinking (yes, it’s possible and dangerous) and eating food sources of electrolytes can normally allow the body to stay in balance. Here are some sources of electrolytes (minus sodium, of which most Americans get enough):

  • Calcium: dairy products, fish, meat, eggs, dark leafy greens, beans, and fortified bread and cereals
  • Potassium: oranges and orange juice, grapes and raisins, prunes, yogurt, spinach, bananas, sweet potatoes, avocados, melons, tomatoes, and beans
  • Magnesium: leafy greens, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils, whole grains, dairy, beets, bananas, and pineapple
  • Chloride: celery, seaweed, tomatoes, olives

For more articles check out our fill your plate blog. Looking for some fun recipes to make at home? Check out our recipe page.

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Consider Tofu Feta

By Morgan Crawford a recent ASU Nutrition Student

I recently stumbled across a recipe for tofu feta and decided to tweak it a bit and try it out for myself. It turned out incredible and has quickly become one of my favorite recipes.


I always have it on hand to add to salads and pasta. This alternative to traditional feta is a great source of protein and packs a punch when it comes to vitamin B12, which comes from the nutritional yeast. It is so quick and simple to make and really elevates any dish.


1 block extra firm tofu

2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

½ tsp garlic powder

1 tablespoon fresh basil

¼ cup nutritional yeast

½ tsp salt

pepper to taste



Method 1- Place the block of firm tofu in a large mixing bowl. Use a potato masher to break up the tofu until it resembles crumbled feta. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until the ingredients are well combined.


Method 2- Use a food processor to crumble the tofu. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse together.

For more awesome recipes check out the Fill Your Plate recipe section! Curious about what produce is in season this month? Check out what’s in season on the Fill Your Plate website.

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Growing Healthy Minds & Appetites: The Benefits of School Gardens and Kitchens

By: Cecelia Wilken

There is a growing disconnect between farms and tables around the world. With the ease of modern-day groceries and influx of fast-food restaurants around the world, many children grow up without learning the fundamentals of proper nutrition. Common sense would suggest that as countries develop and as ease of access to healthful foods increases, so would knowledge and proper nutrition. However, while food may be more readily available, it seems health is still in decline. With a staggering increase in obesity rates, heart disease, and diabetes, it seems we have replaced one problem with another. A study done by the British Nutrition Foundation¹ found that many children from ages five-16 lack knowledge about where their food comes from. Some British children believed that eggs come from dairy cows and that foods like bread, yogurt, chocolate, and salmon belong in the fruits and vegetable food group.

In America, recent studies have found that traditional methods of teaching nutrition in public schools is lacking and are largely ineffective when attempting to change child dietary habits for the better², despite the fact that many elementary school teachers believe that nutrition education is “somewhat to very important” and that “nutrition education could benefit the child’s life for the long term” ². Many believe that integrating nutrition education into many different curriculums, such as math, English, science and even incorporating a school cafeteria component would help benefit and be more successful than a singular nutrition-based curriculum.

Photo: Courtesy of USDA – Flicker “Andrew’s School Garden” https://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/22478511942

One way of incorporating nutrition education into a curriculum is to introduce school gardens and kitchens. Research has concluded that students who engage in school gardens have a greater understanding of different vegetables, have more positive opinions about eating vegetables, and are more willing to try different types of vegetables³. Additionally, school gardens offer an alternative approach to teaching various subjects; such as math, science, economics, social studies, and agriculture.

In Arizona, it appears efforts to help children understand nutrition is well on the way. Arizona Farm Bureau has a fully-functioning “Ag in the Classroom” program that includes helping students understand where their food comes from. Arizona Farm Bureau is also partnered with the University of Arizona and its School Garden program.  Plus, Arizona’s Education Department has a “Farm to School” program.

Another program is the Edible Schoolyard Project, founded in 2005 by Alice Waters. Their mission, “to build and share a national edible education curriculum for pre-kindergarten through high school.”

For the last 20 years, students at the founding garden at King Middle School in Berkeley, California cultivate a one-acre teaching garden where they grow food that will eventually be cooked in a classroom kitchen. In this cafeteria, all the school meals are made from scratch using locally sourced produce and seasonal ingredients.

“Edible education connects the experience of school to the real, lived experience of our students. It prioritizes access to the healthy food that underpins all other efforts to give children a strong start at school and in life.” – Edible Schoolyard Project Mission Statement


The Edible Schoolyard Project has helped incorporate 5,513 programs into 53 United States and territories as well as 64 countries around the world. There are over 80 Edible Schoolyard chapters around Arizona. To find a chapter in your area, use this interactive tool (https://edibleschoolyard.org/network). To see various resources, teaching plans, materials and find more information about starting your own chapter, please visit (https://edibleschoolyard.org/resource-search).

“Learning laboratories” like school gardens and kitchens help promote the consumption of healthy produce. In addition, school gardens can highlight the importance of practicing sustainable waste-management practices such as composting and recycling. These community gardens help reconnect our children with earth, helping shape healthy minds, bodies and appetites.

For more articles like this check out the Fill Your Plate Blog. Looking for some fresh produce? Check out our Farmer’s Market tab to find one near you.



¹Tomatoes grow underground and pasta comes from animals, according to UK school children and teens – British Nutrition Foundation. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritioninthenews/pressreleases/1059-bnfhew2017.html

²Improving Nutrition Education in U.S. Elementary Schools: Challenges and Opportunities. (2015). Journal Of Education And Practice6(30). doi: ISSN 2222-288X

³Ratcliffe, M., Merrigan, K., Rogers, B., & Goldberg, J. (2009). The Effects of School Garden Experiences on Middle School-Aged Students’ Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behaviors Associated With Vegetable Consumption. Health Promotion Practice12(1), 36-43. doi: 10.1177/1524839909349182

SOzer, E. (2006). The Effects of School Gardens on Students and Schools: Conceptualization and Considerations for Maximizing Healthy Development. Health Education & Behavior34(6), 846-863. doi: 10.1177/1090198106289002

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Posted in Ag in the Classroom, Arizona, Composting, Farmer's Markets, Fill Your Plate, Focus on Agriculture, Food, Food Production, Fun Food Facts, Gardening, Green Matters, In Season, In the Kitchen, Just For Fun, Kids, On the Farm, Planting, Vegetables, Water, Weather | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taco Tomatoes

By Alexandra Pettit AZFB Communications intern

Taco tomato is a healthy substitution for the traditional taco. It is a quick and easy option for dinner tonight. You can make substitutions to suit your liking.


1 Tbs. Olive oil

1 lb. of ground turkey (or ground beef)

1 package of taco seasoning

1 onion, chopped

4 beefsteak tomatoes, large

Additional toppings:


Sour cream

Shredded lettuce



In a pan over medium heat add oil and cook ground turkey or beef. Add onion and stir until soft. Add taco seasoning and follow directions on the package. Make sure your tomatoes are stem side down and slice to make 6 wedges do not cut all the way through, carefully spread open the wedges.  Fill with taco meat and add the toppings of your choice. Serves 4.

Looking for some yummy recipes like this one? Check our recipe section. Looking for some fresh produce? Find a farmers market near you.

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Summer Science for Kids

By Alexandra Pettit AZFB communications intern

School is out and summer is here for the kiddos. They are excited for a fun filled two months of summer. You are probably wondering how you are going to keep them busy for the next two months.

Summer science experiments are cost-effective and sometimes educational summer activity. Summer Science experiments are something my family would do. Depending on the week and the experiments we choose sometimes we would do one every day, but for the most part, we did about three per week. They ranged from different levels of difficulty as well as how big of a mess they made (growing up with all brothers we loved the ones that made big messes). My mom thought this was a great way to continue learning while enjoying our summer vacation.

A lot of the experiments you can find on Pinterest and easily get the supplies at any grocery store. One of my favorite experiments was the cloud in a jar. Some fun facts that can go with this experiment are

  • One of Arizona’s 5 C’s is the climate.
  • A cloud is a large group of tiny water droplets that we can see in the air.
  • A cloud is a large group of tiny water droplets that we can see in the air.

Cloud in a Jar takes only 15- 30 minutes and is super easy for kids of any age. This experiment is to show different types of weather.

Things you will need:

  • Warm Water
  • Aerosol Hairspray
  • Ice cubes
  • Jar with Lid


Pour the warm water in the jar and swirl it around to warm the entire jar. Flip the lid upside down and put a couple of ice cubes on the top of the lid, and put the lid on the jar. Quickly remove the lid and spray quickly with the hairspray and quickly put the lid back on. Remove the lid again and watch the cloud leave the jar.

Always remember to watch your kids as some experiments might need more supervision than others. Happy experimenting.

Check out the Fill Your Plate Blog for articles about healthy eating. Ever wonder what produce is in season? Check out the Arizona Produce in Season section.

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