Helpful or Harmful Diet Review: The Alkaline Diet

(Originally posted on on May 3rd, 2012)

Throughout April we explored the pros and cons of different dieting systems. Now during the merry month of May we are going to be taking a look at diets that are not marketed as systems but are more ways of life that do not have central organizations behind them. The first of these diets we are going to be looking at is the Alkaline Diet.

The Alkaline diet is based on the pH of the blood. We discussed this a little when we talked about Osteoporosis about a month ago. pH means the Potential of Hydrogen and has to do with how acidic or basic (alkaline) a substance is. pH is measured on 14 point scale where 7 is neutral (like distilled water) and anything lower is acidic and higher is alkaline. This is a very important concept in chemistry and to be honest, most of the things in the body are chemistry. The interaction of nutrients with the cells walls in the gut for absorption, the transformation of energy from glucose into a format the body can use, the interaction of the immune system with foreign particles and cells. These are all chemical reactions and chemical reactions require specific pH ranges to occur in or they will be slowed down or completely stopped. This could be catastrophic if the essential processes of the body shut down. This is why the body tries to regulate its internal pH fairly strictly, but as in all things our diet has a strong influence on this.

The majority of the chemical reactions in the body take place in the blood which is kept in a slightly alkaline range at 7.2 – 7.4. This is what the Alkaline Diet attempts to maintain. Through the identification of foods that keep our body balanced where it is supposed to be the Alkaline Diet helps to optimize our cellular functions.

Now our body is not without its own protective mechanisms to maintain the pH within us. They can shift the pH back towards normal range by adding or removing certain buffers through our lungs and kidneys. Now one of these buffers is Calcium from our bones which leads to the fear that a diet that acidifies the blood will leach the calcium from our bones to such a degree as to cause or just exaggerate the progress of osteoporosis. There is some research that does suggest this connection (increased calcium in the urine) but none that shows it conclusively (reversal with diet change or increased incidence with time).

There is also limited research showing that diet has that much of an impact on our body’s pH balance. It is clear from timed blood draws after designed meals (and one study that looked at only varying salt intake) that we can alter the acidity or alkalinity of our body but that the change is minimal. This has lead to this diet not being accepted in mainstream medicine. But on the other hand I could only find seven studies that seemed remotely connected with the Alkaline Diet so much more is needed before the true impact can be evaluated.

Many different doctors and nutrition experts and trainers have written about this diet and incorporated it into their “health programs/systems” and some make claims about curing diabetes and cancer with this diet but the lake of consistent research definitely gives me pause. The main worry of supporters of the Alkaline Diet is that through persistent acidification (the Standard North American Diet leans in that direction) our bodies will not be able to maintain the near neutral balance they require and disease will arise from the resulting condition. I understand the theory and it is definitely sound. Our bodies cannot maintain a balance when we constantly push them away from it with our actions (there are several conditions related to exhaustion that we may get around to discussing here). We definitely need more research in this area.

In general, the foods that the Alkaline Diet promotes are whole fruits (low-sugar) and vegetables with tubers and legumes as sources of good carbs. On the list of things to avoid are simple sugars, caffeinated drinks, grains, meat, and alcohol. The good foods are supposed to make the body more alkaline and the bad, more acidic. The surprising category for me is our friends the fungi who get stashed with the bad/acidifying foods. For a more comprehensive list of where foods fall check out this link. The strange quirk of the Alkaline Diet is that foods that we think of as acidic, like lemons and their citrus brethren, actually make the blood more alkaline and vice versa. Strange, I know.

So my overall impression is that the Alkaline Diet is an excellent idea but is, as of yet, unproven. I think that much of the benefit seen from the Alkaline Diet is most likely due to the clean diet it promotes through food choices. So there is really no harm in following this diet. It covers all the nutrients we need but as to whether there is any added benefit that is still to be determined.

As always, thanks for reading and come back next week for the next installment of the Helpful or Harmful Diet Review.
Dr. Ben


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