The alkaline diet – myths, benefits and the real reason it works

Look at the popular media today and you’ll notice a trend taking place amongst health seekers, frequently endorsed by actresses and supermodels – the Alkaline Diet. I was recently featured in an alkaline diet article in the Daily Mail, which stated that Elle Macpherson is a “raging fan”. We could be forgiven for thinking that by following an alkaline diet like Elle, pictured running along a beach in a low cut swimsuit, we could miraculously achieve the same body type, as long as we regularly test our urine pH.

Drilling deeper into this article (and numerous others posted on the internet about the benefits of alkalizing) reveals that many people might misinterpret why the alkaline diet is beneficial. To me, this is a great pity, since it leaves a potentially uber-healthy regime open to ridicule by everyone from dietitians to scientists. I follow a diet high in alkaline forming foods, and it upsets me to think that people will be put off upgrading their diets as a result of some bad press which leaves them thinking there’s no benefit to it.

On the one hand, we have Chris Kresser, amongst many others, who denounces the diet as a misguided fallacy, and on the other, Dr Robert Young for example, whose opinion seems to be that all degenerative disease could be eliminated if we would just alkalize. Who is right? Well, perhaps confusingly, they both are. Let’s look at why.

The Daily Mail puts forward both sides of the story. Firstly, “alkalizers”- the slim, attractive celebrities who drink green juice test their urine pH regularly to make sure they are on track; secondly, the dietitians who say there is no benefit in eliminating whole food groups and that the “alkaline diet fad” is dangerous.

The theory surrounding alkaline residue diets is sound enough: all food, when digested, leaves behind either an alkaline mineral or acidic mineral residue. This has actually been scientifically proven, so trying to refute it won’t get you very far. What come next are the assumptions extrapolated from this fact, and the serious risk of misinterpretation.

From the outset, we need to be aware of some biochemistry. Whatever we eat, the pH of our blood stays almost exactly the same. Some devotees of the alkaline diet think they can change their blood pH; this cannot be done through food, and really doesn’t help their cause. The “mythbusters” have a field day with this one, and here’s why. Blood absolutely has to remain at, or very close to, pH 7.365 (slightly alkaline) to sustain life. We have a series of tightly regulated homeostatic mechanisms, involving the kidneys and the lungs, to ensure that this is the case. In extreme circumstances, such as in the life-threatening conditions of diabetic ketoacidosis or renal failure, blood pH can drop, and without immediate medical intervention you’d leave this world pretty rapidly. But this just doesn’t happen if you choose to eat a burger and fries (acidic, by the way).

Some proponents of the alkaline diet, as quoted in the Daily Mail, even state that excess acid in the body turns into fat which leads to weight gain. Come on guys, get real. Alkalizers 0, mythbusters 1 for that statement, and a further opportunity for those who want to ridicule the alkaline diet. You can indeed lose weight on a diet high in alkaline minerals, but that is absolutely not because acidic minerals are converted into fat.

Here are some more myths about alkalizing:

1. All fruit and vegetables are alkaline-forming

They’re not. Most fruit is actually acid-forming, with a few exceptions. The reason for this is because most fruit is hybridised and picked long before it is fully ripe. This renders the produce high in sugar and low in minerals. High-fruit diets should be avoided, since a high sugar-content diet is damaging to health. The pH residue of vegetables depends on which part of the plant you’re eating. Leaves are alkaline – I recommend that you eat lots of them. Stems are mostly neutral (around pH 7), and roots are largely acid forming. Cooked white potatoes, ubiquitous in many people’s diets, are highly acid-forming.

2. Testing your urine and salivary pH tells you how acidic or alkaline your blood is

There is absolutely no correlation between the pH of your saliva or urine, and the pH of your blood. Your blood pH stays the same, remember? What urine pH can tell you is whether you have just eaten a stack of alkaline-residue food. But you knew that already, right?

3. If your body is alkaline, you won’t get degenerative disease

I love the idea of this – alkalize and you won’t get ill. Scientifically, it doesn’t quite stack, so again the mythbusters love it. The main reason you’re benefitting from an alkaline diet, like Elle Macpherson and those other slim attractive celebrities, is not because of the alkalinity per se, but because of the other benefits of the alkaline residue foods, and the harmful aspects of the largely acid-forming foods. See below.

4. Your blood pH doesn’t change so it doesn’t matter what you eat

This is an unfortunate extrapolation made by the naysayers. It actually does matter what you eat –hugely. “Garbage in, garbage out” as they say. Eat junk and you’ll eventually look and feel terrible, and you’ll also accelerate the ageing process. But that isn’t just because you’re full of acidic waste, it’s mainly because of all the other negative effects of eating junk. Eat excellent food, which just happens to be alkaline, and you’ll look and feel fantastic. This brings me on to some of the real reasons why alkaline diets are so beneficial.

The secret’s out – it’s not really all about pH.

Take a look at the “acid vs alkali” list below. Do you notice anything?

Acid-forming                                                                        Alkaline-forming

All animal protein                                                                  Green leaves

Unripe hybridised fruit                                                         Most vegetables

All processed grains/flour products                                  Small grain sprouts

Cakes, biscuits, high-sugar cereals                                  Green-leaved sprouts

Nuts and seeds, pulses                                                          Green superfoods

All carbonated drinks                                                            Green juices

Alcohol, coffee                                                                          Lemon water

This is just a very brief overview of the acid vs alkali food story, and the list is by no means exhaustive. As you’ll notice, the foods listed on the left (acid-forming) are things that we already know are not good for us, with the exception of nuts, seeds and sprouted pulses, which have many potential health benefits. High animal protein consumption has long been associated with the increased risk of many types of degenerative disease, but not necessarily all because of the acidic residue.

We also now know that processed meat is carcinogenic, with the most recent study, published last month, stating that it is potentially as carcinogenic as smoking. It would also be difficult to defend the consumption of cakes, sweets, biscuits, processed breakfast cereals, fizzy drinks and alcohol and say that they in any way contribute to a slim, healthy body.

Looking to the right side of the list is where we find all the foods upon which we can base a healthy diet. Plants – the massive abundance of the vegetable kingdom. When we incorporate some of the nuts, seeds and pulses into this list, we have everything we need to nourish ourselves. Here’s why:

1. Plants contain all the macronutrients we need

Yes, protein, fat and carbohydrate – it’s all here. For those who think we need to “combine proteins” to get what we need on a daily basis, or that plant protein is somehow inferior to animal protein, you might like to read my book The Whole Body Solution. You’ll discover that this myth was dispelled years ago. Be aware that plant protein is acid-forming; after all, proteins are made from amino acids and leave an acidic residue. However, animal protein leaves a greater acidic residue than plant protein. You need certain acidic minerals in the body; for example, bone tissue contains some phosphorus, which is acidic. You’ll find out more about bone health, and how pH fits in with it, in my latest book Love Your Bones.

2. Plants are bursting with micronutrients

Micronutrients – the small stuff, but so important. Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and things that don’t even have names yet. It’s the micronutrients in plants that largely contribute to the health benefits of the alkaline diet, not the alkalinity per se. Look up resveratrol as an example if you like. It’s one micronutrient which has a host of benefits, such as slashing your risk of heart disease. And that’s just one of them. There are probably well over 25,000 micronutrients in the plant kingdom. They don’t all have names, and there are probably many more waiting to be discovered. They probably don’t even need names – their benefits will be there nonetheless.

No doubt someone will want to pull me up over B12 and vitamin D3. Good – you’d be right. B12 deficiency is rampant in vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters. It’s a supplement that health experts are recommending should be taken by pretty much everyone. Don’t risk brain shrinkage and decreased energy production by not taking it. Regarding D3 – we need sun exposure for the best levels – it acts like a hormone and can’t be easily accessed via food. If you live in a place that’s cloudy and dark for 6 months of the year, you need a supplement (or a holiday in the tropics for a few weeks).

3. Plant-based diets reduce the risks of obesity

It’s true – vegans are slimmer than meat and dairy eaters. This is a cross-continental trend and has been studied in people of many different ethnicities. If you only eat plants you’re likely to be slimmer. That’s nothing to do with alkalinity by the way, or acidic waste somehow being converted to fat. It’s more likely to do with the fact that plants contain a lot of fibre which keeps you “fuller for longer”, so you’re less likely to overeat.

4. Plant-based diets reduce the risk of many degenerative diseases

Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, dementia, stroke… the list goes on. The higher your intake of meat (and other “acid-forming” foods), the higher your risk of these killer diseases. That’s not as a result of acidity per se, it’s somewhat more complex than that. People who eat more from the left side of the list (again, with the exception of nuts, seeds and pulses), are less likely to be eating plenty from the right side – and it’s many of the micronutrients found in plants which reduce the risk of degenerative disease.

5. Living foods (alkaline) diets have a high emphasis on juicing

Hydration is hugely important to the way we look and feel. Green juices, not those based on fruit, are important for hydration at a cellular level. Dehydrated people don’t look good, they feel tired and their brains don’t work properly. Their skin shows it too. See The Whole Body Solution for more information on this very important point, and read about why I don’t recommend trying to alter your pH with “alkaline water” in my latest book Love Your Bones.

One last comment I wish to make about the Daily Mail “celebrity following of the alkaline diet” article (apart from that I was slightly misquoted), is that there’s so much more to health than buying some pH testing strips from Amazon and expecting that you’ll end up looking like Elle Macpherson. Why does she look as good as she does? It’s a combination of a great diet, proper hydration with green juices, regular exercise, stress management, adequate sleep, and just as importantly, good genetics.

There are some things that we just can’t change, no matter how hard we try. I’ve been following an alkaline diet (and not bothering with pH strips) for over 25 years. But one thing I’ll say is that it absolutely has not, and never will, make my legs grow 4 inches longer (as just one example). Even though we both eat in a similar way, drink green juice and both exercise a lot, I guess that’s why Elle’s a supermodel and I’m not. Thanks Mum and Dad!






About Max Tuck

Hippocrates Health Educator. Long term living foods vegan. Athlete, lecturer, author of four books (with the 5th coming soon) and firm advocate of healthy living.
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