We’re going to let you in on a little secret. Most popular healthy diets that are touted for weight loss—from Paleo to Mediterranean and vegetarian—share many of the same basic principles. All involve eating whole foods (as opposed to packaged and processed) and filling your plate with quality sources of protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-rich vegetables. (Again, we’re talking about those that fall somewhere on the healthy spectrum, not unhealthy fad diets like, ahem, the Grapefruit Diet). However, each proposes a slightly different path that leads to fulfilling those principles. In this column, we’ll be breaking them down for you one by one so you can figure out which (if any) is right for you. We’ll quickly explain the facts and will provide quick, actionable tips on how to follow the diet as part of a Nutritious Life.
What is the Alkaline Diet?
To understand the premise of this diet, let’s first talk pH (sorry, in advance, for any bad middle school science class memories). pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline something is on a scale of 0 to 14. A pH of 0 is completely acidic, while a pH of 14 is completely alkaline.
The diet centers on the hypothesis that the foods we eat influence the pH of our bodies and thereby affect our health. Specifically, acid-forming foods like meat, grains, and dairy increase the acidity of our body and lead to illness and disease like cancer or osteoporosis. On the flip side, alkaline foods can protect against these conditions and even help you lose weight, too.
What You Eat
You’ll be loading your plate with primarily alkaline foods which include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Thumbs up to these foods.
What You Don’t Eat
This diet is all about avoiding acid-forming foods. It’s recommended that you stay away from meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, grains, alcohol, caffeine and highly- processed foods.
Pros and Cons
Contrary to the alkaline diet’s claims, the foods we eat cannot alter our body’s pH (unless a person has a specific medical condition that inhibits the body’s ability to regulate pH such as liver or kidney disease). It’s important to note that different parts of the body have different pH levels. The stomach is always acidic in order to break down food; whereas blood is always slightly alkaline with a narrow pH range of 7.35 to 7.45. Anything outside of this pH range is fatal, so your kidneys and lungs work hard to regulate this. Your lungs remove CO2 (which contributes to acidity) through breathing, and your kidneys remove excess acids through urine.
So, do acidic diets lead to poor health? Proponents of the alkaline diet believe acid-forming foods can lead to osteoporosis because your body takes calcium, an alkaline mineral, from bone in order to counteract the acidity. Yet, most research has not been able to find an association between acidic diets and bone loss. Not to mention protein, an acid-forming nutrient, is actually important for preventing bone loss.
Despite claims linking an alkaline diet with reduced cancer risk, there is very little research on the topic. One systematic review searched for human intervention and observational studies that looked at diet pH and any type of cancer outcome, and was only able to find one study that met this description. The study followed 133 males over the course of 17 years, and did not find an association between acidic urine (as a result of an acidic diet) and bladder cancer.
However, the alkaline diet does reduce your intake of inflammatory foods like sugar, refined grains, and red and processed meats that also happen to be acid-forming. Chronic inflammation wreaks havoc on our health and is linked to diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
There are also some studies that suggest a potential link between high acid-forming diets and type 2 diabetes, but more research is needed.
The Bottom Line
The alkaline diet may have health benefits, but it most likely doesn’t have anything to do directly with pH. Foods that are alkaline tend to be ones that are loaded with health-promoting nutrients like fiber, antioxidants, and essential vitamins and minerals. By emphasizing nutritious whole foods and avoiding less healthy options like sugar, alcohol, and highly processed items, it’s no surprise some people see positive health outcomes when following this diet. Alkaline foods are foods that everyone should be eating. You just don’t need to follow a strict alkaline diet to do so.
Also, you could be missing out on some healthy acid-forming foods like whole grains, lean meats, and eggs if you only focus on alkaline foods. Don’t stress if you still want to enjoy your morning coffee, a tasty organic turkey burger at your next cookout, or a satisfying Greek yogurt bowl with all the fixings. And, of course, avoiding inflammatory acid-producing foods like packaged and processed items is always a good move.