Myth of the Perfect pH Diet
Can Changing Your Acid Balance Really Change Your Health?
Most of us remember the pH scale – from alkaline to acidic – from high school chemistry. But take a walk around a health food store today or peruse the Internet and you’ll find that balancing your body’s pH is a hot trend in the nutrition and diet world. Many people are adopting extreme diets and popping various dietary supplements in an attempt to “alkalize” their bodies. The promised payoff? Vitality, energy and a cure-all for disease and infection.
“Through what has become the typical Western diet based largely around meat, dairy, sugars, alcohol, saturated fats and caffeine, millions of us have created a hostile, acidic environment within our bodies,” warns the United Kingdom’s Energise for Life online healing store.
So goes the argument for acid-balance diet advice. Proponents of these diets claim cancer, heart disease, obesity, hormone concerns, premature aging and more can be cured by banning acid-producing foods from one’s diet.
Invariably, these diets prescribe minimal meat, dairy and carbohydrate consumption. But when the upside is preventing or stemming cancer, wouldn’t such an extreme diet be worth it?
Various online cancer information sites warn that currently there is no research evidence suggesting that an acidic body encourages cancer growth.
Local licensed nutrition counselor Henry Hall agrees.
“There’s a lot of hype about over-acid conditions,” he says. “There’s a lot of things said, like ‘Cancer can’t grow in an alkaline body,’ which is a myth.”
Finding Your Own Way
Since 1975, Hall has guided patients to a better understanding of how food interacts with their bodies. He is familiar with the acidic-alkaline debate.
“Generally, I look at balancing a person’s body chemistry and individualizing a program for that particular person,” he says. “The reality is, if you balance the
physiology and the pH, there are multiple levels of defense against cancer and a lot of different types of illness.”
In fact, many nutritionists point to the fact that the human body keeps itself in a strict state of balance – and almost every part of the body has its own particular “healthy” pH range.
Therefore, to say that having an “acidic” body leads to poor health isn’t as simple as many claim.
Marcelle Pick, an OB/GYN nurse practitioner with a practice in Maine, agrees on her Web site, womentowomen.com.
“Enthusiasts of the ‘pH miracle’ say that simply living in the modern world – with its reliance on refined sugars, grain-fed beef and unhealthy fats – means we’re all overly acidic,” she says. “I agree with this to an extent, but would not go so far as to apply this notion universally. And I certainly think that before anyone starts megadosing on supplements and downing gallons of ‘green’ water, they need to refine their individual needs.”
‘Five to Nine’ is the Way to Go
Generally, most people can benefit from simply following the good ol’ Food Pyramid diet. “Eat 5 to 9 Fruits and Vegetables a Day” is the perfect prescription not only for better health, but also for balancing body chemistry.
Medical professionals agree that the human body intrinsically knows what it needs and how to get there – if provided an array of wholesome foods. Taking supplements and adding loads of alkaline foods won’t offset any amount of acid that is present or that you naturally make.
“In a nutshell, if people balance the vegetables and fruits they eat with the grains and the proteins, then they’ll do a better job of having a good intake of alkaline minerals,” Hall says.
The allure of the acid-balance diet may be its simplicity. Eat mostly fresh vegetables and fruits (alkaline-producing foods) and add only tiny amounts of meats, dairy and fat (acid-producing foods), proponents say, and you will eventually change the basic chemistry in your cells.
But leaving out major food groups can be risky and even downright dangerous.
“I think what I often see is that everybody would like it to be simple,” Hall says. “Everybody would like it to be, ‘Oh, if you just balance your pH, then everything will be fine.’ You won’t have to worry about anything ever again.”
The reality is there is no simple answer.
For most people, if you eat more fruits and vegetables, you will be taking in more alkalizing minerals. But there also are multiple benefits from reducing red meat and animal protein intake. Increasing proportions of fruits and vegetables would certainly be a benefit for most everyone. But the reasons for increased health effects can’t be traced just to acid balance.
“Part of it would be some of the alkalizing minerals; part of it would be the phytochemicals that are anti-carcinogenic,” Hall says. “Part of it would be the antioxidant properties that are in there. Part of it would be the increase in fiber.”
The Natural Progression
Many acid-balance gurus tout studies that suggest an increased acidity in the body contributes to inflammation and bone loss. Science does give some basis for this.
Pick notes that while digesting acid-producing foods, such as red meat, the body looks for ways to bring chemical balance back to the system. One way it does this is by pulling calcium, an alkalizing mineral, from the bones to counteract metabolic acid byproducts. So it makes sense that vegetarians actually produce less acid during digestion and may have greater bone density than their meat-eating counterparts.
“But don’t forget that bone loss (and regeneration) is a natural, in fact vital, process,” Pick points out.
Hall also illustrates the discrepancy in the acid-balance argument.
“It’s interesting that one of the things said is if you alkalize your tissues, then you don’t get cancer and you don’t get infections,” he says. “If that were true, then why would one of the tests for infection in the urine be an overly alkaline pH?”
Most acid-balance diet practitioners are selling supplements, books or other diet aids. And both Hall and Pick are wary of those claims.“One of the ways it’s approached on the Internet is, ‘Take this calcium and magnesium supplement and mix it in hot water. This highly absorbable magnesium is going to alkanize your system and make you feel better,’” Hall says. “Well, if you’re low in magnesium – from say, eating little or no vegetables – then you are going to feel better.” But that’s very different from eating the actual fruits and vegetables that have this and even greater effects, such as increased fiber and powerful phytochemicals.
Mostly, the online quizzes, checklists and the like that help gauge acid balance are all hype, Hall warns.
“It’s mostly selling you a product, a regimen.”
Pick concedes that one good thing about the acid-balance diet craze is it gets people thinking about their nutrition.
“If it helps you tune in to what’s going on in your body and eat a healthier diet, then I’m all for that,” she says. But paying attention to your pH balance is only one place to make a positive change. Continue to listen to your body, Pick says, and help it find balance on all fronts, including hormones, exercise, emotions and lifestyle.
Eat Your Way to a Healthier You
- As a general rule, try to have two-thirds of your plate covered by vegetables, fruit and legumes. The other one-third can be your meat, chicken or fish. Sound familiar? The basic science behind good eating hasn’t changed since the Food Pyramid was introduced.
- To enhance your nutritional intake, follow these tips from Marcelle Pick:
- Take a high-quality multivitamin every day.
- Fill your plate with fresh vegetables, particularly the dark, leafy green kind. Add fresh lemon as a flavor accent. Enjoy lots of fruit and nuts between meals.
- Consider boosting your diet with “green foods” or “green drinks,” which contain chlorophyll.
- Watch your red meat intake and keep protein consumption at 4 ounces per meal (about the size of a deck of cards).
- Avoid refined carbohydrates whenever you can and emphasize whole grains.
- Chew your food slowly and completely. Enjoy every bite!