Popular diets today focus on everything from fiber to fat, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s also one that revolves around the acidity and alkalinity of your body. In fact, some celebrities, like Kelly Ripa, are actually huge fans of what is known as the alkaline diet — but what does it mean to follow an alkaline diet and is it good for you? It’s probably been a while since you last took a chemistry or biology class, so here’s a refresher on how certain foods can alter the acidity of our bodies — and how you can use that to your advantage to reap the health benefits of an alkaline diet.
What exactly is the alkaline diet?
“The alkaline diet is based on the concept that food, after being consumed and metabolized, produces metabolites that are acidic, neutral, or alkaline,” says Christina Liew-Newville, M.S., R.D., L.D., F.A.N.D., dietetic technician program director and coordinator/assistant professor of dietetics at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. “Based on the potential renal acid load (PRAL) of these metabolites on the kidney, foods are classified as alkaline-forming if they have a negative acid load, or acid-forming if they have a positive acid load.” Essentially, the foods you eat change when your body breaks them down, and some leave residue or “ash” behind that fall somewhere on the spectrum from acidic to basic (alkaline). It’s not about avoiding naturally acid foods because some (like lemons) result in alkaline ash after being digested. “The theory behind the diet is based on the presumption that acid-forming foods cause harm to the body, including but not limited to osteoporosis,” says Lauren O’Connor, R.D., author of The Healthy Alkaline Diet Guide.
What are the benefits of following the alkaline diet?
“The alkaline diet is essentially a plant-based diet,” says Liew-Newville. “The benefits of it come from eating a variety of fruits and vegetables and a decreased intake of soda, salt, and alcohol. Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients and eating more of them may decrease inflammation, improve heart health, and reduce the risks of diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer.” Potential benefits also include “blood sugar control, improved energy levels, healthier digestion,” adds O’Connor.
But “eating more vegetables, cutting back on sugar, reducing your consumption of processed foods, and drinking more water are just general recommendations that are good for your health,” Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, the registered dietitian with the Good Housekeeping Institute, has stressed when speaking about the diet in the past. “Making these changes can help you lose weight and reduce your risk of chronic disease, but not necessarily for the reasons that proponents of the alkaline diet’s claim.”
Will the alkaline diet change the body’s pH?
Not really. “The pH in our body varies with different areas of the body depending on its functions,” explains Liew-Newville. She notes that the pH of the stomach is 1.35 to 3.5 (acidic), the pH of the skin is 4 to 6.5 (closer to neutral), and the pH of blood is tightly regulated by the lungs and kidneys to keep it between 7.35 and 7.45 (neutral) to avoid life-threatening problems. However, “the food we eat can affect our urinary pH,” says Liew-Newville. This means that where a particular food falls on the pH scale won’t really change the way the human body functions. “While many diseases like cancer and kidney disease show high levels of acidity in the body, a healthy body is capable of maintaining its own acid-base balance,” says O’Connor.
So what foods are alkaline diet-friendly?
Liew-Newville sums it up pretty well: “If you want to follow an alkaline diet, consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables; get adequate protein from eggs, lean meats, or plants; avoid alcohol, caffeine, and soda; and avoid convenience foods such as canned meats and packaged snacks,” she says. Keep in mind, “staunch supporters of the alkaline diet believe meat and dairy should be avoided due to the acidic ash they leave behind,” adds O’Connor. Rather than get tied up on the potential renal acid load of individual foods you’re eating, O’Connor says it’s more important to focus on getting plenty of fruits and vegetables on your plate, most of which produce an alkaline ash.
It’s also important to focus on moderation and not total abstinence. O’Connor suggests following the 80-20 rule: 80% of your diet should consist of foods that have a negative PRAL (primarily fruits and vegetables) and the other 20% should include lean meats, fish, eggs, legumes, healthy fats, and whole grains. This ensures you get all the nutrients your body needs and “allows for an occasional treat to prevent the impulse to binge later on or the added stress of a restrictive diet,” she says.
Are there any things to know before starting the alkaline diet?
“It’s important to understand where your nutrients come from,” says O’Connor. “EPA omega-3 fatty acids are more readily available from seafood so including fish in your diet can be a good thing. Meat and poultry are good sources of vitamin B12, which is much harder to obtain from a vegan diet.” That’s why the 80-20 guideline is key—it ensures that you’re not missing out on any essential nutrients. “A person on a strict alkaline diet may not get adequate protein intake and may not get adequate nutrients such as B12 and calcium,” says Liew-Newville.
Also, be aware that “just because foods leave an alkaline ask doesn’t mean they are fitting for people who suffer from acid reflux issues,” says O’Connor. “If you have GERD, you can follow a healthy alkaline diet protocol with adjustments.” Whenever you’re thinking about making big changes to your diet, it’s always smart to consult your doctor or a nutritionist. They can help you figure out if a particular diet is right for you, create modifications to match your needs, and tell you if any supplements might be necessary.