Written by Simone le Roux
Since society hasn’t quite reached the point where it’s acceptable for us to breeze our chubby little bodies around in floating chairs forever - à la Wall-E – there will always be some new fad diet promising to fix us. You would think that we’d have it covered by now: stop shoving doughnuts in your face all the time and eat some green things, maybe go for a nice walk every now and again. Yet here we are, watching tiny celebrities excitedly tell us how they’re so excited that they can finally start eating again because they’ve figured it out, you guys. This time around, the new trend is the Alkaline Diet. Sounds nice and sciency, doesn’t it? At last, a science-based approach to just not eating Cheetos all the damn time and picking up some carrots! But how science-based is it, and how much should you be spending on alkalized water? (spoilers: way less than you think). Let’s unpack it.
The pH scale is a rating from 1-14, where 1 is extremely acidic and 14 is extremely alkaline. Because humans are millions of years in the making, our bodies are brilliant at managing their pH. Your body fluid pH falls between 7.35 and 7.45; a range which tends to fluctuate based on a few things. First, whenever you metabolize food in to energy that you can use to walk to the fridge and get more food, you make carbon dioxide. This works out great, because you breathe it right out. If you maybe had too much at Christmas dinner, your body may slightly fall behind. The carbon dioxide in your blood reacts to form carbonic acid which dissociates to release Hydrogen ions. This is what makes your body acidic. To fix this, your body can do one of two things: It can increase respiration, allowing you to clear carbon dioxide from your body faster, or your kidneys can take over and filter out hydrogen ions while retaining bicarbonate ones. Both of these things fix you right up 99.9999% of the time without you even knowing about it.
THE IDEA BEHIND THE DIET
Some foods promote more acid creation than others. This includes processed foods, animal proteins, dairy, packaged foods, caffeine and alcohol. The theory goes that by constantly eating these foods, you’re forcing your kidneys to sort out your problems for you all the time without giving them the alkaline-promoting nutrients that they need to balance you out. They then start borrowing important minerals from your bones, such as calcium and phosphorous, and weakening your bones. Since your kidneys are so exhausted from doing their jobs all the time, you find yourself in a state of consistent acidosis. This will cause weight gain, weak bones and a host of other health problems, according to blogs. If you aren’t sure whether you’re a little acidic, go ahead and buy a pH testing kit and use it on your urine. That’ll show you how sick you really are!
You can conveniently prevent all of your acid-based problems (get it?) and make yourself healthy again by following an Alkaline Diet – this involves getting rid of all those pesky meats, dairy products and carbs that you weren’t eating anyway and sticking with a plant-based diet. You can further increase the alkalinity of your body by taking supplements and drinking alkalized water. This should help you lose weight, reduce the risk of heart disease, bring back your bone density, bring down your cancer risk and find love (probably).
HERE’S THE PROBLEM
Obviously this diet is going to reduce your lifestyle-related health issues and make you lose weight. But it’s such a huge bummer. By cutting out all of those food groups, you have cut out chips, pizza, burgers, milkshakes, cake, margaritas, lattés, and pretty much anything else that might have brought you joy. It’s really hard to find restaurants that cater to this, so you’re going to be making a lot of your own food instead of going out for sushi or heating up a microwavable dinner for one. Since you won’t be drinking, you will not find yourself eating the pizza you guiltily ordered at 3am after getting home to a fridge that was empty except for a jar of jam. It is exactly zero surprise that people would lose weight by thinking about what they eat and taking the time to prepare healthy, W wholesome meals. The only problem with the diet itself is that it can be really tricky for the average person to sustain. They’re giving up all their favorite things, as well as a lot of their own time and social interaction to make it work. Unless you’re truly dedicated or a vegan (and therefore used to punishment), this just isn’t sustainable.
According to actual science, “regulating” your own pH as if your body is suddenly an incompetent child who can’t be trusted actually has very few tangible benefits. It’s been found that the extra fruit and vegetables in this diet prevents muscle wastage, strokes and hypertension. The increased levels of magnesium in your body will help along some metabolic processes, aaaaand that’s about it. Well done, you’ve achieved what you could have done by just eating more salads and taking a multivitamin every now and again. It turns out that anecdotal evidence is not actual evidence and this diet will not magically cure you of whatever ails you. So where does the science behind this go wrong?
I’m glad you asked because the “science” is dodgy as hell. First, measuring the pH of your urine tells you nothing except that your kidneys are doing their job. If your urine is very acidic, that means that the acid is in your urine and not in your body. Second, your kidneys regulate pH by retaining bicarbonate. This process is sustainable because when carbonic acid dissociates in to hydrogen ions the other product left behind is bicarbonate. There is no need to borrow from your bones at all, even if your kidneys are extremely overworked. Reducing your intake of acid-promoting foods has not been found to prevent osteoporosis and, in fact, diets higher in proteins such a lean meat and eggs are much more protective of bones in the long run.
“WAIT, SO WHAT DO I DO?”
The hype around this diet also shows how insidious pseudoscience can be. A perfectly sound and agreed-upon physiological phenomenon was twisted ever so slightly, making the theory just complicated enough that the average person can’t see the problem and simple enough that it seems logical. Incredible results from doing the same thing that lots of diets tell you to do bolsters the legitimacy of this diet, even though its basis is a fabrication.
Deciding to eat more fruits and vegetables in place of things like microwave instant meals and junk food is never a bad thing. This diet isn’t necessarily bad for you; it just takes away everything that you hold dear. If you’re doing this and you’re happy on it, then more power to you. Just maybe don’t waste your time and money buying “supplements” and testing the pH of your urine. All you’re doing is making your urine more alkaline and then confirming that, indeed, most of this expensive supplement is now in your pee. Also, don’t spend that much time thinking about your pee.