You’re in [linkbuilder id=”2412″ text=”the grocery store”] waiting to check out, looking at the gossip magazines when you spot it: another celebrity gushing about the alkaline diet. Whether it’s Victoria Beckham, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, or Kirsten Dunst, many of the celebrities who follow the alkaline diet look fantastic and are very convincing when they proclaim the virtues of this way of eating. That can make it tempting to give the alkaline diet a second look. On closer inspection, though, the claims that are made about the diet begin to break down as they are disproven by scientific evidence. Even so, health experts agree that eating the alkaline-diet way can still have real health benefits, including weight loss and higher energy levels. How can the diet be both disproven and still healthy? It’s a bit complicated. Here is everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the alkaline diet, from what the diet claims to do to the troubled past of the diet’s founder to the science disproving many of its purported benefits…and why, despite all of that, you may want to give it a try anyway.
What is the alkaline diet?
Advocates of the alkaline diet claim that it helps your body better balance its acidity so it can function smoothly and prevent and treat disease. Acidity is measured by pH level, with a neutral pH being 7. Anything with a higher pH is considered alkaline and anything with a lower pH is acidic. The alkaline diet’s proponents assert that the foods that you eat can affect the pH balance of your blood and that as the body burns foods, an ash is left in the digestive system. Depending on the foods you eat that ash is either alkaline or acidic. Eating more alkaline foods that produce alkaline ash has many health benefits, according to the diet’s advocates. “The alkaline diet has been promoted as a way of eating that will raise the pH of your blood, thus decreasing the acidic burden that foods will have on your body,” says Rob Raponi, a naturopathic doctor and sports nutritionist. “Actively eating a more alkaline diet has been said to help with various conditions from arthritis and diabetes to cancer and even living longer.” People who follow the alkaline diet focus on eating alkaline foods—those with a higher pH level. Fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods are alkaline. Dieters also avoid foods that are acidic, including meat, dairy, and many grains. In order to test their pH levels, people who follow the diet use specialized test strips that measure the pH levels of their urine. Proponents of the diet claim that eating more alkaline foods will lead to better skin, increased energy levels, and weight loss. They also say that it will reduce inflammation and make it hard for diseases like cancer and other illnesses to survive in the body.
What the Science Says
All of that sounds pretty great, right? Unfortunately it’s scientifically impossible for the diet to work that way. To understand why, it’s important to know a bit about pH levels in your body. A normal pH level for blood is 7.4, a slightly alkaline reading. This reading is very important to your health—so important, in fact, that it’s virtually impossible to influence by the foods you eat. If your blood pH should become imbalanced, your body acts quickly to correct it regardless of what you’re eating. “Within minutes of an imbalance, our bodies compensate by adjusting how fast we breathe and how much carbon dioxide we exhale,” says Carrie Dennett, a registered dietitian nutritionist. “That’s our front line of defense, but our kidneys also help maintain healthy pH by adjusting how much bicarbonate—an electrolyte that can buffer excess acid—they release.” Dennett emphasizes that our bodies have a fine-tuned system for regulating blood pH—and it’s not a system we can easily override by eating poorly. “Our bodies have very sophisticated processes for maintaining our blood pH within a very narrow range,” she says. “The lungs and kidneys work together to maintain this tight pH control, effortlessly counteracting the acid load you get from food and from the waste products of normal metabolic processes. If your blood pH becomes too acidic, or too alkaline, it’s a dangerous situation, and it’s because there’s some serious underlying health problem—it’s not because of what you’re eating.” So, blood pH cannot be influenced by what we eat. That means that a major claim of the alkaline diet—that you can prevent and treat disease by increasing the alkalinity of your blood—is bogus. But remember that people who follow the alkaline diet are measuring the pH of their urine, not their blood. Unfortunately for fans of the alkaline diet, blood pH and urine pH are unrelated. Food can affect the pH of urine, but that is not necessarily an indicator of health as this article on a 2015 study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine points out. Dennett is even more blunt. “Peeing on pH test strips is a useless exercise,” she says.
A Troubled Past
As we’ve seen, the science shows that the alkaline diet can’t possibly work the way its advocates claim it does. Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning of the controversy surrounding this diet. Robert O. Young, the man who could largely be credited with making the diet mainstream (and one of its best-known and most outspoken proponents) was sentenced in June 2017 to five months in jail. Young, who has written many books, including the bestseller The pH Miracle: Balance Your Diet, Regain Your Health, was found guilty of practicing medicine without a license and two other felonies. He was allegedly treating people—including dying patients—by injecting them with water and baking soda in a bid to give them a so-called healthier pH level. Young had no medical or scientific training, however. In fact, he hadn’t even been to an accredited college. In addition to doing jail time, Young had to publicly admit that he was not a doctor and had no training that gave him the credentials to tell people how to eat—especially not people with serious health conditions. During Young’s trial, the judge said that he had oversimplified “extremely complex fields.” “I think where it all went very wrong is you became overly aggressive and overly confident in areas you just had no knowledge about,” the judge told him.
The Power of Enthusiastic Spokespeople
Claims that have been disproven by science and a founder who is behind bars. With that, you would think that the alkaline diet would be done for. However, it still has a loyal following and celebrities and others loudly proclaim their dedication to following the diet. “Many alkaline diet advocates are very persuasive, speaking authoritatively in terms that are technical enough to sound legitimate and science based, even though they are not,” says Dennett. That can be very powerful, particularly when it comes to a concept like pH levels that the general public might find confusing or not be very familiar with. “Advice or information created by someone who is deemed—rightly or wrongly—to be an authority, who states falsehoods in no uncertain terms in an emphatic and convincing way, especially to large groups, is compelling,” says Morton Tavel, a physician who writes about medical untruths in his book Snake Oil Is Alive and Well, The Clash Between Myths and Reality: Reflections of a Physician. “This convinces subjects, especially in the presence of large and cheering crowds, that the pronouncements must be true.”
But are there legitimate benefits?
Despite the misconceptions around the alkaline diet, both proponents and experts who aren’t associated with the diet say that eating the way the diet encourages can have real health benefits. “The alkaline diet has its merits. Encouraging people to include more vegetables will always promote a better lifestyle,” says Raponi. Because the alkaline diet promotes a plant-based diet, there are bound to be health benefits. “This diet is still quite popular because those who try it most likely end up feeling much better if they’ve made a change from a standard American diet to one that promotes more vegetables and having to cook at home for yourself since your options for eating out are much more limited,” Raponi says. Dennett agrees: “Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits has established health benefits for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that they are alkaline,” she says. “Many of the foods on the ‘alkaline’ list—vegetables, fruit, lentils, spices, and herbs—are very nutritious and health-promoting foods, while some of the foods and beverages on the ‘acid’ list—refined grains, alcohol, bacon, coffee—are objectively foods we should not eat or drink in excess.” Dennett suggests that people who want to see health benefits quit worrying about their pH levels and instead focus on eating healthy, wholesome foods. “Ditch the acid–alkaline food chart and place that focus on eating a diet that’s rich in plant foods and contains adequate protein,” she suggests. That includes eating some foods like nuts and lean proteins that people following the alkaline diet generally avoid. “Not only do we need adequate protein for good health, but nuts have a wealth of research supporting their health benefits,” Dennett says. As for the reported disease-busting benefits of the alkaline diet, Dennett says those claims are based on outdated science. “Research from several decades ago indicated that cancer cells thrive in an acidic environment, but this idea has been overridden by more recent discoveries that cancer cells likely create that acidic environment themselves, regardless of what we eat,” she says. So, although the alkaline diet may have benefits for your health, it won’t magically inoculate you against disease.
The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Americans love to eat meat, and a protein source is often the cornerstone of every meal we have. The alkaline diet encourages people to move away from animal proteins to a more plant-based diet. In fact, some people who follow the alkaline diet are also vegan, not eating any animal products. That type of diet can have health benefits, especially if it’s compared to how most Americans eat. Recent studies suggest that plant based nutrition can play a complementary role in managing cardiovascular disease, preventing and managing type 2 diabetes, and supporting weight-loss efforts. Researchers point out that the fatty acids, antioxidant vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals in fruits, nuts, vegetables, and whole grains may result in the protective effects of plant-based diets. A 2015 study published in Nutritional Neuroscience even found that some vegan participants experienced less stress and anxiety than their meat- and animal product-eating counterparts. Increased fruit and vegetable intake was also associated with lower anxiety for some participants—all of which points to the mind–body benefits associated with dining on plants as opposed to opting for meat at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And while there are many diets—from vegetarian and strict veganism to flexitarianism—that encourage the incorporation of more plant consumption at mealtime, if the alkaline diet will motivate you to eat a little less meat and more vegetables, it could have a positive impact on your health.
The verdict is in.
There’s no doubt that the alkaline diet has some drawbacks. The basic tenet of the diet—that food can influence your blood pH and therefore your health—is scientifically inaccurate. The man who made the diet famous is in jail. Despite all of that, however, you might still want to give the alkaline diet a try for reasons completely unrelated to acidity. “More so than being worried specifically about your pH, you should be concerned with what it is you’re putting into your body,” says Raponi. “If paying attention to pH levels gets you to be more aware of avoiding unhealthy foods and including more vegetables, then go for it. However, if this way of eating is something that already sounds very familiar to you, worrying about pH levels [is] completely unnecessary.”