A growing trend among celebrities is to eat an alkaline diet, a diet rich in foods that have a pH towards the basic end of the spectrum, and to avoid eating foods that have an acid impact on your body. Followers of this type of eating plan, including devotees like Gwyneth Paltrow, Kelly Ripa, and Jennifer Aniston, say the diet gives them energy, helps them lose weight, and improves the appearance of their skin.
Despite the popularity of this diet, we all know that popularity doesn’t always equate with health. The dubious world of diets is littered with unhealthy, celebrity-endorsed diets. Remember the cabbage soup diet and the baby food eating plan? Is the alkaline diet any different? Most importantly, is there scientific evidence that eating an alkaline diet is beneficial?
What Are Alkaline Diets?
The pH of your body refers to its acid-base balance. Normally, your blood pH hovers around 7.4, a value that’s slightly alkaline or at the slightly basic end of the spectrum. A neutral pH is 7.0. Once the pH falls below 7.0, it’s acidic. Your body has systems in place to tightly regulate the pH of your blood with your lungs and kidneys playing the biggest role. These two organs work together to keep your blood pH in a narrow range. That’s important since a pH that moves too far out of range is dangerous. That the body can regulate pH so tightly shows what a finely-tuned machine it is.
The alkaline diet is built around the idea that certain foods affect the pH inside our cells. Remember, blood pH stays constant but cellular pH can vary. For example, meat, grain, and dairy products have an acidic impact on cells, meaning these foods form acidic products after they’re digested. In contrast, fruits and vegetables are metabolized into basic or alkaline products. Once your body breaks down the components in your diet, you’re left with metabolites that fall somewhere on the acid-base continuum – and if it’s acidic, according to alkaline diet followers, that’s bad for your health.
When following an alkaline diet, you don’t have to completely give up acid-forming foods, like meat and dairy but rather balance them with alkaline foods, at least enough to tip the scales toward the alkaline end of the spectrum. That means eating more fruits and vegetables, which is hardly a bad thing.
What does research say about alkaline diets? Although this isn’t a heavily studied topic, there was a 2012 study looked at the benefits of an alkaline diet on health. This study preliminarily showed that eating more foods that lead to alkaline pH may have benefits. For example, doing so may be healthy for your bones. When you consume an acidic diet, your body has systems in place to “buffer” the excess acid and return its ideal state, around 7.4. One such system is bone. The way bone buffers excess acid is by releasing minerals from bone, including calcium and phosphate into the bloodstream. That may help the pH imbalance but it leads to loss of bone minerals – not a good thing for bone health. Fruits and vegetables, being alkaline, can buffer the change in pH without pulling minerals from your bones. So, an alkaline diet may help preserve bone health. Studies show when people consume an alkaline diet, they lose less urinary calcium.
Still, protein-rich foods, like meat and dairy, may not be as harmful as it sounds since studies show that diets high in protein boost calcium absorption from the intestinal tract. So, protein foods may be acidic and cause loss of calcium but they also increase absorption of this bone-friendly mineral.
In addition, an alkaline diet appears to increase the amount of magnesium inside cells. Magnesium is involved in over 300 chemical reactions inside the human body and is vital for bone, blood vessels, and heart health. Magnesium also helps to activate vitamin D, a vitamin that plays a key role in calcium absorption and bone health. So, an alkaline diet by increasing magnesium inside cells may keep your bones healthy via several mechanisms.
Are Alkaline Foods Muscle Friendly?
Interestingly, the study also showed consuming an alkaline diet may help prevent loss of muscle tissue associated with aging and diseases that cause muscle wasting. One way it seems to do this is by increasing growth hormone, a key hormone involved in preserving muscle mass and bone density. It’s beginning to sound like an alkaline diet is bone AND muscle friendly.
Although the idea of an alkaline diet, especially if it includes lots of fruits and vegetables, is sound, in theory, the benefits, if there really are any, may not be from the effect the diet has on pH. They may simply be due to the fact an alkaline diet is high in fruits and vegetables. We already know that vegetables and fruits are an abundant source of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals with health benefits. It’s possible to take the alkaline diet concept too far, especially if you try to cut way back on protein to keep your diet alkaline. Research shows you need protein for healthy bones and you already know how important it is for muscle preservation.
The Bottom Line
In general, alkaline foods, are healthy, so you can’t go wrong adding more of them to your diet. Fruits and vegetables of all types fall into the alkaline category, but when you break it down, the key to good nutrition is balance. Eat more alkaline foods but don’t sacrifice protein either. Explore the wonderful world of plant-based protein too. If you eat a whole, unprocessed diet, your body will naturally stay in balance. It’s sugar, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats that stress your body the most.
Are the celebrities on to something? Maybe – but there’s limited research at this point to support the alkaline diet theory. Remember, there’s more to food than how it affects the pH inside your cells. It’s more important to judge a food by how unprocessed it is, how little sugar it contains, how much fiber it has, as well as its vitamin, mineral, and phytochemical content. At this point, it’s premature, based on the limited evidence, to buy into the health benefits of an alkaline diet based on the pH principle alone.