Is the alkaline diet right for you?

Alkaline diet

Updated Jun 18, 2020 @ 5:49 pm

The alkaline diet plan is based on the premise that your diet can alter the pH balance inside of your body — essentially, eating to change your body’s levels of acidity or alkalinity.

So, what can this diet do? Advocates for alkalinity like celebrities Victoria Beckham, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Elle Macpherson say that the alkaline diet can:

  • Reduce the acidity in your body
  • Help guard against certain chronic diseases
  • Prevent health issues created by eating very acidic foods

In this article, we’ll define this diet and discuss how your body’s pH works, what to eat, and what to avoid. We will also unpack the evidence-based benefits underneath the hype, and give you guidelines to decide whether or not the alkaline diet is right for you.

What is the alkaline diet?

The alkaline diet (sometimes called the alkaline ash diet or acid-alkaline diet) is a dietary eating plan that emphasizes consumption of alkaline foods (with a pH above 7) to improve overall health and avoid an acidic environment within the body.

The alkaline diet is based on the fact that some foods are more alkaline, some are almost neutral, and some are acidic. It postulates that a diet full of processed foods, alcohol, coffee, sugars, cheese, and refined grains may create an acidic environment inside of your body.

The alkaline diet aims to decrease the intake of these processed or acidic foods, and instead swap them out for more natural, low-acidity foods. Proponents of this diet claim that it can cure all sorts of health woes like heart disease and kidney problems and even change pH levels in the blood.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work, according to those promoting this dietary plan:

  • When your body burns calories, it leaves a residue behind called metabolic waste (metaphorically likened to “ash” left after a fire burning”)
  • This waste typically matches the acidity of the food it came from — alkaline, neutral, or acidic
  • Proteins, phosphate, and sulfur leave more acidic “ash”
  • Calcium, magnesium, and potassium are the “ashes” left behind by alkaline foods
  • Metabolic waste that is too acidic makes your blood more acidic

This theory (the “acid-ash hypothesis) essentially suggests that acidic “ash” from acidic foods will make your body more prone to disease.

Is the alkaline diet safe? Yes, the alkaline diet is likely safe when done properly. It may not be sustainable for everyone, and some of the rumors about its benefits are exaggerated. We’ll discuss those below.

Does the alkaline diet work?

While this eating plan is generally healthy and is likely to lead to weight loss and an improvement in health, it is not true that any food’s “ash” will greatly impact your blood’s pH.

Critics of the alkaline diet, such as US News & World Report and nutritionist Abby Langer, claim that there’s very little benefit to an alkaline diet plan. They argue that its restrictions can:

  • deprive the body of essential vitamins and minerals
  • harm instead of improve bone density
  • encourage an eating plan that is not well-rounded and/or easy to follow

However, we know that nutrition is individualized and should be based around what’s best for you. While the alkaline diet can be very healthy, it’s not a miracle solution for every eater.

Dietary Acidosis & Healthy pH Levels in the Body

Your blood does a great job of maintaining proper pH levels. Your blood’s pH only changes in disease states — usually, medical emergencies — known as acidosis.

However, more recent research shows that an acidic diet, while not able to change the blood’s pH, can lead to “dietary acidosis,” in which your body has to work harder to maintain proper pH. The work your body is doing to maintain the right pH then reduces the effectiveness of other systems, like your immune system.

Our body needs to be at a slightly alkaline state to perform optimally, so eating an alkaline-promoting diet can, for some, make a significant difference. However, let’s deconstruct some of the claims about the alkaline diet that you may have heard.

The term pH, or “potential of hydrogen,” works on a scale of 0 to 14. The lower a pH number, the more acidic, and the higher the pH, the more alkaline. Neutral pH is around 7, which is where our bodies want to be for proper functioning.

Different food and beverages can fall anywhere from acidic to alkaline on the scale:

  • Acidic: acidic foods fall below 7 on the pH scale and include most animal protein, grains, dairy products, refined sugars, and alcohol
  • Neutral: foods in the neutral range, around 7, are almost all natural, including starches, sugars, and fats
  • Alkaline: veggies, fruits, nuts, and legumes all fall from above 7 up to 14

You won’t see many foods at the very bottom or top of the scale — a low zero or a high 14 — as they aren’t fit for human consumption. For reference, a healthy blood pH ranges around 7.35 to 7.45, though the stomach is much more acidic.

What happens when your body and blood get far too acidic?

The way you eat does not generally change the pH level of your blood. It’s usually only by a medical condition — usually a severe variation of acidosis — that your blood pH would get dangerously acidic. This would be a medical emergency, not a dietary fix.

“Our lungs and kidneys have a tightly controlled mechanism to regulate the pH of our blood. Diet can, however, affect the pH of your urine,” says Robert Glatter, MD. “The metabolism of foods leaves a so-called residue or ash, and those who follow the diet believe that this ash can have an effect on the acidity of your body.”

Eating a diet rich in acidic foods can lead to dietary acidosis, a condition in which a highly acidic diet forces the body to work extremely hard to maintain proper pH. Your blood’s pH will almost certainly remain unchanged (although your urine’s pH may drop).

Imagine your pH on a tightrope all day, trying to stay balanced.

This exhausting condition takes a toll on the body. Cortisol levels spike, bone metabolism is impaired, kidney stones may form, muscle mass may be loss, and an increase in insulin resistance can result. Dietary acidosis, brought on by a highly acidic diet, is certainly something to avoid if you want your body to focus on health and not just maintenance.

In other words, if you want to thrive — not just survive — you want to avoid dietary acidosis.

In other words, it’s a myth that your diet can effectively impact your blood pH.

It would be more fair to assert that it affects urine pH instead. Some studies have found that your urine reflects the foods you eat and the acidity in the human body, though more research is needed.

At the end of the day, barring a medical emergency, you don’t need to change your blood’s pH. Also, measuring your urinary pH isn’t an exact science since it can fluctuate due to a number of factors from hydration to your last meal.

Nevertheless, don’t be too quick to claim that the alkaline diet doesn’t have merits. Your body does have an acid load and processes to balance pH that can be overworked, and the acidity of the foods you eat can determine how hard your body has to work to maintain proper pH levels.

What do you eat on an alkaline diet?

Foods to eat on an alkaline diet are neutral-to-alkaline on the pH scale, although depending on whose version of the diet you follow, some slightly acidic foods may be allowed.

However, there aren’t just items to stock up on, but ones to avoid. Remember, with an alkaline diet, it’s all about the total balance of alkaline vs acidic foods, so taking more of a holistic approach rather than simply making one meal more alkaline a day is needed.

Foods To Eat

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach
  • Mushrooms
  • Spinach
  • Alfalfa
  • Cucumber
  • Snow peas
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Citrus fruits (lemon, lime, oranges, grapefruit)
  • Watermelon
  • Bananas
  • Dates
  • Figs
  • Tomatoes
  • Avocados
  • Cherries
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Non-gluten grains (quinoa, wild rice, lentils)
  • Almonds
  • Beans/legumes
  • Flax seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Tofu
  • Potatoes
  • Wine

Foods To Avoid

  • Dairy (cheese, milk, sour cream, etc.)
  • Any foods that contain added sugar
  • Meat (particularly cured meats, bacon, poultry, canned meat, tuna, and beef)
  • Fish (including canned sardines and tuna)
  • Eggs
  • Refined grains (breads, pastas, tortillas, etc.)
  • Alcohol
  • Soda (including diet soda)
  • Foods high in caffeine

An alkaline diet recommends staying away from eating a lot of dairy, including cheeses such as parmesan, American, mozzarella and cheddar cheese.

As you can imagine with this natural foods-based diet, preservatives and artificial sweeteners are also far from ideal and can increase acidity quickly.

Evidence-Based Benefits of the Alkaline Diet

According to a 2012 review published in the Journal of Environmental Health, eating an alkaline diet not only improves gut health but an array of other chronic diseases. It may lower the risk of mortality and incidence of diseases such as hypertension, arthritis, and osteoporosis.

What are the benefits of the alkaline diet? Here are the top 5 things that the alkaline diet (sometimes called the alkaline ash diet) has been scientifically demonstrated to do:

  1. Protect the kidneys: an alkaline diet may prevent kidney stones from forming, avoid kidney damage, slow the progression of chronic kidney disease, and reduce kidney strain. The kidneys produce ions that help to neutralize acid in the bloodstream, so reducing the demand on them can have many benefits.
  2. Lower the risk of diabetes: research has noted that a higher acid load is one of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes, and a more alkaline diet may reduce chances of the disease.
  3. Increase muscle mass: the alkaline diet can also help build muscle in the body, which can improve metabolism, boost weight loss, and prevent bone loss.
  4. May boost the benefits of chemotherapy for cancer patients: an alkaline diet can heighten the efficacy of certain chemotherapeutic agents, which work best in an alkaline environment to kill cancer cells.
  5. Could improve back pain: patients given an alkaline mineral supplement saw a marked improvement in their back pain, according to one study!

Studies show some promising effects of the alkaline diet, but it’s far from a cure-all. If you are at risk of diabetes or osteoporosis, or struggling with kidney issues, type 2 diabetes, or cancer, there may be some benefits for you.

Science cannot back claims in marketing for the alkaline diet such as that it will slash your cancer risk or heal your kidney disease.

What science supports wholeheartedly is that eating more fruits and vegetables can boost health in a plethora of ways. Even if you don’t choose to use an alkaline diet, the positive benefits of incorporating more produce into your daily meals cannot be ignored.

More fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet can:

  • Provide your body with necessary fiber to support healthy digestion
  • Promote healthy, low levels of inflammation throughout the body
  • Reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cataracts, COPD, diverticulosis, and high blood pressure
  • Support a healthy weight and combat or even prevent obesity
  • Take the place of boxed/processed foods and replace those often empty calories with nutrient-dense energy
  • Lower oxidative stress by increasing your antioxidant levels
  • Improve insulin sensitivity and promote healthy blood sugar levels
  • Increase your water intake (especially when you eat water-rich foods, such as watermelon, celery, and bell peppers)

In general, it’s a good idea to “eat the rainbow.” You’ll experience the most positive results by eating produce of all colors, as the coloration of different fruits and vegetables are often associated with different nutritional compounds that promote health.

How to Shop & Cook on the Alkaline Diet

First things first: opt for organic foods when possible. Not only do they stay clear of some harmful pesticides, but organic foods are typically produced in a more mineral-dense soil, so they offer greater benefits and more nutrients than non-organic foods.

Alkaline foods that taste great raw include veggies like broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower, as well as fruits like lemon and watermelon.

If you’re looking for savory, mushrooms, spinach, alfalfa, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas, and Brussels sprouts are great to eat for those on an alkaline diet, says Dr. Josh Axe.

According to Structure House‘s registered dietitian Benjamin White, PhD, despite their acidic nature, citrus fruits are actually an alkalizing agent on the body:

“Citrus fruits like oranges have citric and ascorbic acids and taste sour, but they are actually alkaline-generating once they’ve been digested and absorbed.”

Cooking can reduce the alkalizing effect due to added heat, so eating fresh produce in their natural, raw states can help maximize nutrient absorption. Or, you can also try lightly steaming, as this process isn’t as harsh as frying, sautéing, and other high-heat techniques.

If you must fry in oil, try extra virgin olive oil, which is the least acidic among the types of olive oil. You could also try avocado oil for a change of pace, but don’t forget! Less heat goes a long way with alkalinity.

Don’t forget that we can often get fiber from grains, calcium and vitamin D from dairy, and important nutrients from other foods we give up for an alkaline diet. This means that we should be careful with how we replace acid-forming foods, according to nutritionists.

If you are reducing acid-rich foods, it’s important to make sure you consume alkaline foods high in calcium like broccoli, almonds, white beans and leafy greens. Also, add in some essential fatty acids (flax seeds and chia seeds), and proteins like tofu, beans, and nuts.

When drinking alcohol, or just starting your day, have water with lemon or lime for an alkaline, detoxifying drink. Another good option? Add a tablespoon of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar (and a teaspoon of raw honey) to a glass of alkaline water.

If you’re not ready to memorize an alkaline diet shopping list quite yet, just stick to this rule: organic, raw fruit and veggies are the best choice for snacks, and overcooking is a faux pas. If you can tell it came from the earth, it is likely a good choice for the alkaline diet.

Should you try the alkaline diet?

Eating an alkaline diet is sure to boost health for many people, so you may want to try it and see if it works for you.

Now we know the diet itself does not actually change the pH of your body and excludes many foods that can be beneficial to overall health.

“The actual reason it’s a healthy diet is based on the principles of fresh, natural and unprocessed foods,” says Dr. Robert Glatter. Unfortunately, some foods that can be good for you are eliminated, as they’re just simply a bit more acidic.

If the goal of taking on an alkaline diet is to promote health, then you won’t be surprised by the results. Increasing fruit and veggie consumption, limiting processed foods, etc, will have a positive and demonstrable effect on anyone’s health. However, it’s essential to understand that this positive effect is not because this diet is changing the pH of your blood.

So, if you’re craving an omelet for breakfast, feel free to have it. Just balance them out with foods like spinach or kale, which are alkaline producing.

Bottom line: a strict alkaline diet may be right, or it may be a poor choice. It’s totally dependent on who you are and what type of healthy eating your body responds to.

Looking for a personalized nutrition plan, more information, and science-based recommendations to improve your overall health? Check out Clean Plates Academy, our new eight week course that focuses on helping people develop personalized nutrition plans.

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