Point of View: The Alkaline diet, a healthy diet backed by faulty science
By now, about 80 percent of us have long since given up on our New Year’s resolutions. However, as the warmer months approach, we might get back on the diet we abandoned to shed some pounds in time for summer. The alkaline diet—touted by the likes of athletes who have stayed in the game well past their prime—is one of the latest in a trend of popular nutritional regimens.
The idea behind the alkaline diet is that you must “alkalize” your body through the foods you eat to offset acids in your body. Excess acidity, according to proponents, is at the root of numerous health conditions, from acne to cancer. However, different parts of our bodies have different levels of acidity to perform their natural functions. For example, the stomach is extremely acidic to help us digest our food.
While the diet promotes adopting healthy eating habits, like eating more fruit and veggies, the science behind some of its claims is flawed. Below are the truths that debunk some of the alkaline diet’s assertions.
Myth: Food “greatly” affects the blood’s pH balance
Proponents of this diet wrongly attribute blood acidity to the foods we eat. For humans to survive, our blood pH has to rest between 7.35 and 7.45. Values either below or above this range would kill us. Our body maintains a neutral pH around 7.4 through natural bodily functions, such as breathing and urinating. No matter how much acidic food you are eating, you won’t just enter into respiratory or metabolic acidosis without there being something wrong with the body.
So, eating acidic foods like fish or lemons will not make your blood pH suddenly become acidic. Lemons and other sour fruits are a great source of vitamins and minerals. They also function as a great, low-calorie way to add flavor to water or vegetables.
Myth: Acid in the urine indicates acidic blood
Just because your urine is acidic, it does not mean that your blood is. Remember, our blood has to remain pretty stable to keep us alive. What we eat and drink impacts the acidity of our urine—think about it in the same way that our poop can change smell, color and consistency, depending on what we consume.
The stomach, for example, is a very acidic environment. Its acids help facilitate protein breakdown for digestion. Stomach acid also prevents harmful bacteria and organisms from entering our intestines and making us sick.
Myth: Stay away from protein
The alkaline diet warns wary dieters to abstain from most protein, even plant-based protein, such as beans, legumes and grains, and lean animal-based protein because of their “acidic-load.”
Though high amounts might give you a case of bad breath, protein is beneficial for muscle growth and weight loss. It also helps you feel fuller after a meal. In appropriate amounts, protein actually helps you excrete acid. The daily recommended amount of protein depends on certain factors, including a person’s gender, lean body mass and activity level. Consult with your primary care provider or registered dietitian for more information.
Myth: Avoid “nightshade” plants
You know something is a little shady when a diet tells you to shy away from nutrient-packed plants. “Nightshade” plants, like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, are part of the Solanaceae plant family. And just because some bad apple—or should I say, plants—in the family are poisonous, it doesn’t mean all of them are. All of the fear simply comes from this confusion.
Now, parts of some nightshade plants, like tomato leaves, can be toxic to humans. The answer is just do not eat the plant’s leaves or stems, but rather to eat the fruit or vegetable itself. I mean, how often are you going to the grocery store and asking for a bag of tomato leaves?
Your body gets much-needed nutrients from eating some nightshade plants:
- Peppers: vitamins C, E and A, folate, potassium
- Tomatoes: lycopene, potassium and vitamins C and K
- Eggplants: potassium, manganese, vitamins C and K
Myth: Acidic foods contribute to inflammation
An overall healthy diet, which includes acidic foods, can help reduce inflammation and reduce risk for major diseases that have been linked to chronic inflammation.
Some foods do contribute to inflammation and should be limited in your diet. These include refined carbohydrates, such as white breads and pastries, fried foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. You should also limit your consumption of red meat and other processed meats. These meats, when consumed in excess, can also contribute to weight gain, which itself increases inflammation.
The benefits of an alkaline diet
There are a few things that I like about the alkaline diet. The main benefit is the promotion of more fruit and vegetable consumption. So load those up on your plate! I also like that the alkaline diet encourages people to cut back on refined sugar and processed meats.
There is much research demonstrating the benefit of a whole food, plant-based diet in overall health and disease prevention. So don’t feel inclined toward the alkaline and get a variety of nutrient-packed plants into your diet.
Find good advice about diets online
If you want reliable advice online, search for dieting tips on reputable websites. The American Heart Association, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and the American Diabetes Association provide accurate information. These sites are peer-reviewed and have a more balanced approach. They also tend to align with recommendations by most health professionals.
It is equally important to discuss any dieting plans with your primary health care provider.
Keri Carpenter, MPH, RDN, LDN, CHES, is a health educator and licensed dietitian nutritionist at the Coastal Bend Health Education Center. Her concentration is in chronic disease prevention and wellness program development. She teaches diabetes self-management and wellness classes to employees, teams and individuals. She also conducts patient clinical assessments, provides individualized nutrition counseling and serves as a communications spokesperson for nutrition content. Her experience includes work as a health educator, worksite wellness researcher and dietitian. She specializes in developing survey collection and analysis tools to measure nutritional health in order to improve work efficiency and aid in continuous quality improvement of wellness programs.