Maria’s intro: After hearing for yet another time about the merits of the alkaline diet plan and its so-called anti-cancer properties I looked into the subject only to find that the whole idea was bogus: what you eat cannot affect your pH plus the whole pH theory and cancer is not exactly how it’s described on some natural health websites.
Rachael Link, our dietitian, investigates. Enter Rachael:
The alkaline diet plan is no stranger to the spotlight. Victoria Beckham, Kirsten Dunst, and Jennifer Aniston are just a few of the celebs rumored to have embraced an acid-free lifestyle, attributing their slim figures and increased energy levels to this “miracle diet.”
Forget the thousands these women likely spend on private chefs, personal trainers, and dietitians—it all comes back to those perfect pH levels!
But the hype doesn’t end in the celebrity world – it’s also propagated by quacks.
Type in “alkaline diet plan” into Google and you’ll find pages and pages of articles promising that a balanced pH is key to curing cancer, achieving good health, and basically living forever.
The idea behind the alkaline diet plan is that eating too many acidic foods can drop the pH of the blood, increasing the risk of a whole slew of health issues like cancer, muscle wasting, heart disease, and bone problems.
So, of course, the idea is that following an alkaline diet plan is key to preventing all of these health problems and achieving good health. Proponents of this plan encourage increasing intake of “alkaline” foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
Artificial sweeteners, grains, meats, and dairy products are considered some of the worst offenders when it comes to acid-forming foods. Conversely, leafy greens, olive oil, garlic, and raw fruits are supposedly the most alkaline.
It sounds good in theory, right? Obviously you can’t go wrong with increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables. The basis for the alkaline diet plan, however, just doesn’t add up.
Let’s look at the facts behind the alkaline diet plan and see what the science says.
5 Things To Consider Before Jumping on the alkaline diet plan train.
1. The alkaline diet plan is right: the human body requires a strictly controlled pH.
Our body needs to maintain a pH level between 7.35 to 7.45 for survival. This slightly alkaline environment is crucial for maintaining the ability to support human life.
According to a review by Schwalfenberg, the pH in our body ranges in different areas.
- The stomach, for example, is highly acidic to promote digestion with a pH between 1.35 to 3.5.
- The skin is also acidic, with a pH that falls between 4-6.5, to prevent microbial overgrowth and form a protective barrier.
- Meanwhile, the blood has a higher pH of 7.35-7.45 which ensures that cells can function properly.
What happens if your pH strays from its narrow set range?
Alkalosis or acidosis can occur when your blood becomes too basic or acidic. Both conditions are accompanied by negative symptoms but severe cases can become fatal if left untreated.
Alkalosis leads to nausea, muscle spasms, dizziness, and difficulty breathing.
Acidosis can cause symptoms like fatigue, confusion, sleepiness, jaundice, or rapid breathing.
Besides avoiding those negative symptoms and, ya know, not dying, maintaining an appropriate pH is also important for optimizing our health.
- A 1991 study published in The British Journal of Radiology found that cell death of tumors was associated with an alkaline shift in pH.
- Another study in the British Journal of Cancer demonstrated that manipulating the pH of tumors in favor of alkalization actually improves the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
- A review by Caso and Garlick suggested that chronic acidosis can inhibit protein synthesis and cause muscle protein wasting.
- Another study published by Vormann et. al treated patients with chronic lower back pain using alkaline minerals and found that their symptoms were reduced by 49% after 4 weeks.
So, yes, our body’s pH is incredibly important. However, that being said…
2. Following an alkaline diet plan won’t affect your body’s pH.
If monitoring and maintaining your body’s pH to within a tenth of a unit sounds exhausting, no worries—your body has an awesome built-in system that takes care of all of that for you.
Basically, there’s a complex buffer system in place that keeps pH levels in check, regardless of whether you’re eating an entirely raw diet or chowing down on “acid-forming” foods like cheese, wine, and artificial sweeteners.
The kidneys are responsible for filtering around 200 quarts of fluid every single day and excreting around two quarts of that as urine.
Through this process, the kidneys successfully maintain our body’s acid-base balance by excreting (acidic) hydrogen ions into the urine and reabsorbing (basic) bicarbonate from the urine.
This is why urine changes pH based on what you eat, and it’s also the basis for the misconception about the alkaline diet plan.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research:
Home “test kits,” which measure the pH of urine, do not relay information about the body’s pH level. True, foods, drinks and supplements will affect the acidity or alkalinity of urine, but it is the only fluid that is affected. In fact, excess acid or base is excreted in the urine to help maintain proper pH balance in the body.
Bottom line: yes, acidosis is harmful but it’s caused by serious medical conditions rather than diet. And, no, your urine’s pH is not reflective of your body’s pH.
3. The alkaline diet plan won’t cure cancer.
In addition to being important for general functionality and survival of the human body, our body’s pH is also important when it comes to cancer.
In fact, you may have seen articles like this one posted on facebook:
If you click on an article like this you may read how the alkaline diet is the answer to curing cancer. Before you nod, let’s examine the facts.
Dr. Otto Warburg made important strides in the early 1900s when he found that cancer cells thrive in acidic, hypoxic environments. Not only did he win a Nobel Prize for his work, he also set the stage for the alkaline diet plan.
Though cancer cells produce lactic acid in the body, this does not have a widescale effect on the pH of the body. As stated by dietitian Dianne Piepenburg of Minnesota Oncology:
“It is not the body that is too acidic and gives cancer cells a medium to grow and divide. Rather, it’s the opposite. Cancer cells produce acid, but that does not make the entire body more acidic.”
Furthermore, as previously mentioned, the body’s pH is maintained within a very narrow range and there is a complex system of checks and balances keeping it that way.
And though it’s a nice idea to think that filling up on fruits and veggies can help keep an alkaline environment and ward off cancer, see point #2 above: it just doesn’t work like that.
4. The theory of the alkaline diet plan may be wrong, but its emphasis on fruits and veggies is spot on.
Okay, so we’ve established that it’s just not possible to significantly alter your body’s pH through the diet (and trust me, that’s a good thing).
The alkaline diet plan does bring a few good things to the table, though.
First of all, the foods emphasized in the alkaline diet tend to be nutrient-dense. This essentially means you’re getting the most nutritional bang for your buck and obtaining a good amount of nutrients for a pretty low trade-off in calories, sodium, and fat.
Some of the “acid-forming” foods are things that we should be limiting in our diet anyways. Soft drinks and alcohol, for example, offer very little nutritionally and should be consumed only in moderation while white flour products should be swapped for whole wheat grains to get the most vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
That being said, the plan also limits several foods that are rich in nutrients and can definitely be included in a healthy diet, such as dairy, grains, and meat. Many proponents of the plan recommend keeping an 80/20 ratio of alkaline to acidic foods in the diet, but even that might be too restrictive to meet your needs (see #5).
The bright spot is that loading up on the fruits and vegetables likely means a reduction in caloric intake. That might not affect your pH, but it is great news for your waistline.
Not only that, but the fruits and vegetables that form the foundation of the alkaline diet plan are also high in fiber. Fiber digests slowly, which keeps you regular and leaves you feeling fuller for longer.
A 2007 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied the effects of supplementing a reduced-fat diet with fruits and vegetables. 97 women were assigned to either a reduced-fat diet or a reduced-fat diet with increased fruits and vegetables. After the completion of the yearlong study, they found that the group consuming fruits and vegetables lost more weight and reported less feelings of hunger.
So keep the fruits and vegetables in your diet…but do it in favor of diet quality and overall health rather than pH.
5. The alkaline diet plan can make meeting nutrient needs more challenging.
Any time you restrict your diet, getting what you need from it gets a little more difficult.
With the alkaline diet plan, you may be including tons of fruits and veggies, but you’ll probably be a little lacking when it comes to nutrients like protein, calcium, iron, and zinc.
For example, several good sources of protein are considered “acid-forming” and therefore restricted, so you’re missing out on meat, dairy, eggs, and a good deal of nuts and seeds. In fact, protein in general is classified as acidic on the alkaline diet plan.
Not getting enough protein can lead to a drop in energy, an impaired immune system, hair loss, fluid retention, and muscle wasting. All unpleasant and all totally avoidable with a healthy diet.
Is it possible to have a healthy, deficiency-free diet while following the alkaline diet plan? Absolutely…but it will definitely take a little research and some extra effort to make sure you’re getting the nutrients your body requires.
Alkaline Diet Plan Report Card
Sustainability: D (poor)
Depending on how strict you are with the alkaline diet plan, it can be pretty restrictive and challenging to sustain. With a diet that relies almost exclusively on fruits and vegetables and with stringent (and confusing) regulations on what’s allowed and not allowed, this will be a difficult diet to keep up with long-term.
Effectiveness: F (unacceptable)
The idea behind the alkaline diet plan doesn’t have any physiological basis, so it fails when it comes to effectiveness. You might see some benefits in weight control if that’s your goal, but that’s only because you’re cutting out so many food groups.
Nutrition: C (fair)
You can never go wrong with loading up on fruits and veggies. You will be losing out on beneficial nutrients by cutting out some of the “acid-forming” foods from your diet, though, and meeting your nutritional needs gets even harder with the long list of restrictions on the diet.
Ability to Harm: F (unacceptable)
With some websites even going so far as to promote the alkaline diet as an alternate to traditional cancer treatments, this diet has the potential to cause serious harm when taken to an extreme.
Overall Grade: D- (poor)
(Determined by an average of above subcategories)
The alkaline diet plan is just another distraction.
Remember: acid is not the enemy here. Some parts of our bodies depend on maintaining an acidic pH and let’s not forget the important role that acids play in our body (deoxyribonucleic acid, anyone?).
Instead of categorizing and classifying foods into “good” vs “bad,” or “acid-forming” vs “alkaline-forming,” can we just focus on maintaining an overall nutritious diet and creating healthy habits?
The alkaline diet plan got it right by emphasizing the importance of fruits and vegetables…but there’s no need for unnecessary dietary restrictions in favor of balancing pH. We have our kidneys for that.
The alkaline diet plan is nothing more than another distraction from the things that do actually matter. Things like exercise, forming regular habits, and maintaining a moderate diet rather than one with huge restrictions and off limit foods.
Have you ever followed the alkaline diet plan and did you feel any different on it? Discuss in the comments below!
Caso G, Garlick PJ. Control of muscle protein kinetics by acid-base balance. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2005;8(1):73-6.
Ello-martin JA, Roe LS, Ledikwe JH, Beach AM, Rolls BJ. Dietary energy density in the treatment of obesity: a year-long trial comparing 2 weight-loss diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(6):1465-77.
Raghunand N, He X, Van sluis R, et al. Enhancement of chemotherapy by manipulation of tumour pH. Br J Cancer. 1999;80(7):1005-11.
Schwalfenberg GK. The alkaline diet: is there evidence than an alkaline pH diet benefits health? J Environ Public Health. 2012.
Smith SR, Martin PA, Edwards RH. Tumour pH and response to chemotherapy: an in vivo 31P magnetic resonance spectroscopy study in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Br J Radiol. 1991;64(766):923-8.
Vormann J, Worlitschek M, Goedecke T, Silver B. Supplementation with alkaline minerals reduces symptoms in patients with chronic low back pain. J Trace Elem Med Biol. 2001;15(2-3):179-83.