The Alkaline Diet: Balancing Acid and Base

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If you thought fashion was subject to trends, you should take a look at diets. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the raw food diet. This week, I’ll focus on what’s called the “alkaline diet,” which is sometimes called the “alkaline acid diet.”

Getting Your “pH-acts” Straight
My guess is that most of you took chemistry at some point in your school career. Unless you completely tuned out, you may remember a discussion of acid-base balance, which is measured by something called “pH.” The human body has a particular range of pH that it needs to be at for good health. The pH is simply a measure of acid-base balance in the body. A pH of 0 is very acidic, 7 is neutral, and a 14 is very alkaline. In normal situations, the body likes to be at a pH of 7.35 to 7.45. The stomach, however, which is very acidic (thanks to hydrochloric acid), has a much lower pH of 1.35 to 3.50. In a condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), ketones, which are acids, build up in the blood and urine. If DKA isn’t treated promptly, the condition may be life-threatening.

Why an Alkaline Diet?
The premise behind the alkaline diet dates back, not surprisingly, to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Way back then, the diet consisted largely of fresh fruit, roots, vegetables, and tubers. Things apparently went awry when grains, meats, sugars, and dairy foods were introduced, and the diet became more “acidic.”

Promoters of the alkaline diet believe that the typical Western diet (which definitely has its flaws) makes the blood more acidic and upsets the acid-base balance in the body. In addition, an acidic diet is believed (by proponents of the alkaline diet) to lead to a loss of potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium from the body. Hence, the alkaline diet should be followed to restore the balance and prevent mineral loss.

In addition, some alkaline diet promoters believe that this way of eating can correct certain health conditions that may be triggered or caused by too much acid. Some of these conditions include:

• Cancer
• Headaches
• Ovarian cysts
• Congestion
• Colds and flu
• Excess mucous production
• Back pain

Researchers speculate that an alkaline diet could possibly slow the loss of bone (important in preventing osteoporosis) and muscle mass, as well as prevent kidney stones. But there are no credible studies, particularly large clinical trials, to back up these claims. What happens in test tubes in a lab or even in animals can’t automatically be extrapolated to humans.

What Do You Eat on an Alkaline Diet?
Fortunately, an alkaline diet isn’t really an unhealthy diet. In fact, it can be quite healthful if planned properly. This diet is mostly a vegetarian diet, consisting of a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, soy, some types of nuts and legumes, and olive oil. These foods are considered to be low acid-producing foods. It’s hard to argue with eating more of these foods.

What Don’t You Eat on an Alkaline Diet?
Meat, fish, poultry, dairy foods, processed foods, white sugar, white flour, yeast products, caffeine, and alcohol are discouraged on this diet, as these are the “acid producers.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with limiting or avoiding some of these foods, especially processed foods, white sugar and flour, and alcohol. But limiting fish, for example, means limiting your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which are the good fats. Dairy foods are a source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D.

Are There Any Benefits to an Alkaline Diet?
The alkaline diet may seem trendy, and the premise behind it is shaky, as the body does a pretty good job on its own of regulating acid-base balance. There are correction mechanisms in place when the balance is upset (for example, breathing more rapidly helps get rid of carbon dioxide, which is an acid). Eating an acid food is unlikely to affect the balance to any great extent. However, an alkaline diet, which is primarily plant-based, in many ways follows the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans and can be viewed as being heart healthy. And a small study indicated that a low-acid diet may be helpful in managing symptoms of laryngopharyngeal reflux.

What Are the Downsides of This Diet?
The major downside is that this diet isn’t backed by credible science. There just isn’t good evidence that changing one’s diet changes the acid-base balance in the body. Spurious claims (and you’ll see many of them on the Internet about this diet) should be viewed with some skepticism.

Bottom Line
If you think this is an eating plan that you’d like to try, let your physician or dietitian know, especially if you have kidney disease. It’s important that you receive the right amount of all nutrients in your eating plan, no matter which plan you choose to follow.

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