Does an Acidic or Alkaline Diet Matter?
Saturday, April 26, 2014
LifeTime WeightLoss in Nutrition, acid, alkaline, alkaline diet, dietary recommendations, healthy diet, pH

Another day, another diet fad... Whether you find it in the magazine rack at the grocery check-out, on late night T.V. commercials or among the Internet hot topics, somehow diet trends are always in the lime-light. It reflects our society's constant search for the holy grail of what sheds pounds in the slickest, fastest way. Lately, a topic of discussion among health and nutrition enthusiasts has been the influence of so-called acid- or alkaline-promoting foods. What's the full story behind the "alkaline diet," and should you buy in? Read on to gain a better understanding of the hype versus the benefits! 

The Basics

What makes limes, lemons, and citrus fruits so tart, while beans and beets taste so “earthy”? The flavor of many foods to some degree indicates their components. One characterizing component of food is pH level. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14. A pH of 0 is totally acidic, 7 is neutral (water), and 14 is completely alkaline. The human body maintains the acidity of the blood by the lungs breathing off CO2 and the kidneys excreting waste. Our normal body pH rests between 7.35-7.45 (slightly alkaline) in order to survive, with optimal measure being 7.4. The acidity of the stomach helps digest proteins and other foods in order to obtain the nutrients from the foods we eat. Specific foods we consume, whether they’re processed or whole foods, may alter our acid base balance in the blood. Even a slight difference in the pH of a food may have a significant impact on color, flavor, and texture of a food item. For example, limes have a pH of ~1.9 (very acidic), while milk and egg whites have pH levels of ~6.4 and 8.0 (more alkaline), respectively. Each of these foods tastes much different as well, in large part to their acidity! You can think of pH (acidic vs. alkaline) also in terms of hot and cold water - how they can be combined to equalize the effect of the other. Our bodies are constantly working to stay in a state of homeostasis and balancing our pH levels through respiratory and renal functions. In addition, nutrients in foods that we consume help these processes. For instance, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sodium are all important minerals that help neutralize acid wastes that accumulate when we consume sugars, starches, and proteins.

What Does an "Alkaline Diet" Look Like?

It’s well known that American diets have been trending more and more away from whole foods and more towards processed and packaged foods. From a nutrient standpoint, this results in diets generally low in magnesium, potassium and fiber and high in unhealthy fat, simple sugars, sodium and chloride. Fruits and vegetables are generally alkali rich, and most have a negative acid load (alkaline) on the body after consumption. However, grain products, processed meats, fish and dairy have a relatively high acid load or anti-alkaline effect. Unfortunately, there’s not full agreement even in circles that support the alkaline model regarding a comprehensive assessment of which foods are ultimately acid-promoting and which are alkaline-promoting (the actual impact on the body rather than the specific pH of the food itself). Below are lists noting generally agreed upon examples for each of the categories. Generally speaking, grains, dairy and meat are the most acid-promoting, while most vegetables and fruits are the best alkaline promoting food options.

Examples of Acid-Promoting Food

Examples of Alkaline-Promoting Foods

What about Protein?

Our ancestors ate many different types of natural whole foods on a daily basis--vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, game animals, and fish, which resulted in an overall pH-balanced diet. The meat and high-protein foods they consumed were balanced with an abundance of vegetables and other alkaline promoting foods. Unfortunately, we have strayed from this balanced diet and now consume large quantities of grains, sugars, bigger meat servings, and low-mineral processed foods. The shift from a traditional diet has promoted a decrease in potassium to sodium ratio that has some health enthusiasts analyzing its effects on our bodies. High protein foods are typically more acidic than alkaline. Some studies suggest that high-acid foods and high protein diets may need to be buffered with foods that are alkaline rich, such as non-starchy vegetables. A high intake of non-starchy vegetables (9-10 servings per day) may improve the pH without decreasing protein intake.

What’s All the Hype?

“Chronic acidosis” occurs, they claim, when we eat a high acid promoting diet over time. The negative result, they go on to describe, is the body’s ongoing compensation (i.e. loss) from its own natural alkali mineral stores primarily located in the bones. Advocates of this theory recommend focusing on alkaline promoting foods and limiting acid promoting foods to optimize the pH level in our bodies in the interest of bone integrity and overall health. What would such a diet look like? Imagine a diet comprised of mainly vegetables, fruits, and some nuts/seeds, while limiting processed foods, packaged snacks, convenience foods, and selectively choosing nutrient-dense, naturally raised meat/dairy.

Recent studies have discussed the benefits of eating specific foods to alter body pH to improve health outcomes. Some sources even claim that the diet can help with weight loss and decrease the risk of developing cancer and arthritis. The theory behind most of these claims suggests foods such as meat, wheat, processed foods, and refined sugar cause the body to produce acid (acid promoting), which may be harmful for you. While there is not enough evidence to completely support or negate the “alkaline diet” for significant health benefits or for the prevention of specific health conditions, the fundamentals of these recommendations do demonstrate similarities to other nutrition recommendations - a diet rich in vegetables, non-starchy foods, appropriate amounts of protein and healthy, natural fats.                         

How Does It Apply to Me?

Although there are numerous studies, articles, journals, and blogs surrounding this “hot topic” of alkaline diet, the key element to consider is self-assessment and readiness. For the average person looking to improve his/her health, lose weight, and enhance body composition, the goal of balancing the body’s pH level is quite far from a necessary or realistic expectation. Instead, a more beneficial and positive way of focusing our nutrition efforts is ensuring we’re meeting the basic nutrient requirements. It’s interesting to observe that when you follow the Healthy Way of Eating model, not only do you incorporate well-balanced nutrition, but you may see that many health-oriented dietary trends (e.g. lower refined-carbohydrate diet, proper food combinations, higher alkaline intake, etc.) are often the core of these basic recommendations. Acidic and alkaline foods aside, what is your overall health and fitness goal, and to what nutrition and lifestyle behaviors are you ready and willing to commit today?

Has the acidic/alkaline model been an influence in your healthy eating? Share your questions and feedback, and thanks for reading, everyone.

Written by Becca Hurt, MS, RD, Program Manager of Life Time WeightLoss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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