What Is The Alkaline Diet?
The alkaline diet has made big headlines over the last few years, and often for all the wrong reasons. We look into this highly controversial diet and ask whether it is safe, effective and scientifically sound. An alkaline diet is based on the theory that you can change the pH balance of your body and blood through the food that you eat – despite there currently being no substantial evidence to suggest that this is possible. Advocates of the diet have claimed that high levels of ‘excess acid’ in the body, caused by our modern diets, contribute to a range of health conditions including arthritis, osteoporosis, kidney and liver disorders, and even cancer. Foods that are cited as being ‘acid-producing’ by advocates of the diet include meat, wheat and other grains, refined sugar, dairy products, caffeine, alcohol and processed foods. Foods that are considered ‘alkaline foods’ include fruit and vegetables.
The diet was originally developed to help prevent kidney stones and urine infections, as the pH of your urine changes depending on what you eat. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this alters the pH of the rest of the body. Blood pH is tightly regulated by our kidneys and is not affected by diet. The alkaline eating plan has come into controversy in the last few years. One key advocate of the diet, Robert O Young, has been in and out of the media spotlight and is facing a prison sentence for practicing medicine without a licence. Cancer Research UK says that there is no good evidence to prove that diet can manipulate the pH of the body, or that ‘acidic’ diets increase the risk of cancer. The NHS says that the alkaline diet lacks evidence, and advises against cutting out whole foods groups, as some versions of the diet suggest. The NHS does acknowledge that the recommendations to eat more fruit and vegetables and cut down on sugar and alcohol are in line with current healthy eating advice.
The premise that by following an ‘alkaline’ diet, you will promote a preferential blood pH, which helps your body maintain a healthy weight and optimise your well-being is fundamentally flawed. This is because your body is designed to do this anyway, aiming to keep the blood pH at a constant slightly alkaline level of between 7.35 and 7.45. That said the foods recommended by the alkaline diet are good for you and in fact largely those promoted for healthy weight management. So if you are cutting down on meat, swapping fatty, processed foods, refined sugars, caffeine and alcohol for more plant-based foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds and drinking water you are more than likely going to experience some weight loss. This way of eating may have additional benefits because a plentiful intake of plant-based foods improves the balance of potassium to sodium which helps manage blood pressure and may improve heart health. As to the evidence supporting other specific health benefits, such as the effects, if any, on muscle wastage and the possible alleviation of back pain, there are, at this time, limited scientific studies to support such claims. Although, it may be argued that more research is needed.
The alkaline diet has been cited as a beneficial way of eating for those with chronic illnesses including cancer. However, to date there is no clinical evidence supporting the value and safety of an ‘alkaline’ diet for cancer patients, and in some cases it may prove detrimental. A plentiful intake of fruit and veg, as advocated by the diet, has been claimed to enhance bone health and possibly protect against osteoporosis because of its high potassium content and lower levels of ‘acidic’ dietary protein. However, the evidence to date is inconsistent and studies involving a more ‘alkaline’ diet and supplements have not shown to be of benefit to bone health. In fact in the elderly, an inadequate protein intake can be a greater problem for bone health. Cutting out whole food groups, such as dairy, can lead to nutritional inadequacies. In order to address this, followers need to find alternative food sources and consume them in appropriate amounts to ensure an adequate intake of key nutrients like calcium, vitamin A and D.
The long-term effects of an alkaline diet will vary depending on the version of the diet that is adopted. A strict eating plan which eliminates grains, dairy and animal foods may be deficient in protein as well as vitamins and minerals including vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium and iron. However, if choosing a balanced version of the diet which does not eliminate food groups, and includes some grains and animal protein along with plenty of plant-based foods, the long-term effects may be more positive. Eating in line with standard healthy weight loss advice and maintaining a healthy weight may lead to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, although this benefit can be obtained by following any healthy, balanced diet.
Credit: Kerry Torrens, a Nutritional Therapist, for Goodfood, 2 November 2017.