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Why the Alkaline Diet is Flawed and Overrated

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Why the Alkaline Diet is Flawed and Overrated

The alkaline diet has a promising sales pitch–improved health, immunity, and longevity–but it’s not all that it seems.

 

The hunt for the Holy Grail of nutrition has given us a lot of scientifically bunk theories–witness the current hysteria over wheat, gluten, and carbohydrates in general–and, as you’ll soon see, the “alkaline diet” theory is just another lame duck that needs to sit down and shut up.

While I wish we could optimize our health and protect ourselves against disease by simply using food to create an “alkaline environment” in our bodies, the evidence is clear–it’s just not that simple.

Ironically, there’s nothing wrong with eating the plant-based foods advocated by alkaline dieters–in fact it’s quite healthy to include these foods in your diet–but the evidence shows that they’re badly mistaken about how the body processes foods in general, and how this affects various physiological functions.

So, let’s start with what the alkaline diet is all about, and then we’ll look at where it falls apart.

What is the Alkaline Diet?

The first thing to understand to grok the alkaline diet theory is pH.

In chemistry, pH is a measure of the acidity of a solution. A pH of less than 7 is said to be “acidic” while a pH greater than 7 is “basic” or “alkaline,” and the more acidic a substance, the more it can react with other substances and cause chemical changes.

Alkaline diet proponents split up foods into three categories:

  • “Acidic” foods: basically all sources of good protein–meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs–and grains.
  • “Neutral” foods: fats, sugars, and starches.
  • “Alkaline” foods: plant-based foods like fruit, nuts, legumes, and vegetables.

And the alkaline diet story goes like this:

When you eat foods, the metabolic byproducts (called “ash”) have pH values. Some are acidic (a pH score lower than 7) and some are alkaline (a score higher than 7), and–we’re told–the more foods you eat with acidic ash, the more acidic your entire body becomes.

An acidic body, alkaline dieters claim, is basically a mound of shit to the flies of disease, and all kinds of horrors can fester and grow, ranging from osteoporosis to diabetes to cancer.

Eat a bunch of acidic foods, they say, and you’re poking the wasp’s nest of disease and dysfunction. Eat a bunch of alkaline foods, however, and you’re bulletproofing your body against the modern onslaught of superbugs, mutant foods, and hazardous chemical.

The pitch is neat, and ironically the “alkaline” style of eating is rather healthy, but like the Paleo craze, the Emperor of Alkalinity is without clothes…

Food Can’t Cause Meaningful Changes in the pH Level of Your Blood

Let’s not waste time toying with our captive–let’s just chop off his head. (I’m a merciful tyrant.)

The biggest problem with the alkaline diet theory is the fact that the foods you eat simply can’t cause large or lasting changes in the pH value of your blood.

We’re lucky this is the case, too. Life on earth requires a tightly controlled pH of about 7.4 in and around cells and living organisms, and a dramatic change toward alkalinity or acidity means certain death.

Unless you have kidney disease, your blood is going to remain at a comfortable pH of about 7.35 regardless of what you eat for dinner. Ironically, this was demonstrated in research stretching all the way back to the 1930s, but the cockroach of the food-blood-pH myth just won’t die.

One of the reasons it’s still scurrying around in Food Babe’s swimming pool of gold coins, however, has to do with how food affects the pH of our urine.

You see, it’s true that the metabolism of food produces alkaline and acidic byproducts, and that “acidic” foods produce acidic byproducts whereas “alkaline” foods produce the alkaline variety. We can’t detect this in our blood, however–we can see it in our urine.

This is why alkaline dieters keep a stash of pH test strips on hand to divine their metabolic horoscope (my pee says it’s gonna be a good day!), but it’s all for naught: the pH of our urine isn’t a reliable index of our blood pH or our health…

What the pH of Your Urine Does and Doesn’t Mean

A bale of spinach will make your pee more alkaline than a big ol’ bronto burger, and seeing that change on the pee strip can be gratifying–an immediate change for the better, you think.

The flaw, however, is that research shows that the pH level of our urine simply isn’t a reliable indicator of the pH of our blood or of our overall health and susceptibility to disease.

You see, the physiological mechanism alkaline dieters don’t know about or simply don’t get is the role of the kidneys in the regulation of blood pH, and how they’re specially equipped to deal with the “acidic ash” resulting from the metabolism of certain foods.

Here’s how it works:

When you eat “acidic foods,” the low-pH byproducts are quickly neutralized by bicarbonate ions in the blood. This process produces carbon dioxide, which is exhaled through the lungs, and salts, which are disposed of by the kidneys. Part of this disposal process includes the production of new bicarbonate ions to go back into the blood, and thus, the body is able to sustain the entire cycle.

Some people claim that the kidneys alone can’t handle this process and that the body must pull minerals from the bones to neutralize acidic ash, thus increasing the risk of osteoporosis, but this has been disproven by several studies.

Ironically, as researchers from the University of Calgary noted, increasing protein intake (which increases the “acid load”) has been shown to improve, not impair, bone health, including animal protein, which is the most acidic of all foods.

An Evolutionary Take on the Alkaline Diet

Alkaline dieters often claim that they’re taking a page from the dietary book of our ancient hunter-gatherers, whose societies were virtually free of many of our modern diseases.

They’ll often back up their claims with a study that concluded that 87% of pre-agricultural humans ate an alkaline diet, but newer research has amended this number and estimates that about 50% of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors ate more acid-forming than alkaline-forming foods, mainly due to high reliance on animal-based foods.

This more balanced estimation makes more sense when we consider that our ancestors had to survive in a variety of climates, which dictated the types of foods they had access to. Research shows that the further north of the equator people lived, the less access they had to fruits and vegetables, and thus, the more acidic their diets were.

The Bottom Line on the Alkaline Diet

As I said in the beginning of this article, the alkaline diet suffers from the same malfunction as the Paleo diet: its recommendations are healthy, but its foundations are flawed and its dogmatic stances against certain foods unjustified.

You absolutely should include plenty of alkaline-forming foods in your diet, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes, as they’re great sources of vitamins and minerals, fiber, and other nutrients, but you also should include plenty of acid-forming proteins as well, as they are high-quality sources of amino acids needed to sustain life.

The bottom line is the healthful aspects of alkaline dieting boil down to its emphasis on eating nutritious, unprocessed foods, which is sound dietary advice, not on the manipulation of blood pH levels, which is a myth.

 

What do you think about the alkaline diet? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • wildjack82

    Mike,
    I like this article. I had some friends ask me recently about the SevenPoint2 products that are based on the alkaline diet craze. After about 30 minutes of research it was easy to see that there was no scientific basis or actual research to support their claims.
    I took it a step further and looked into their ingredient list of their ‘proprietary’ blend. It had some microcrystalline cellulose (fancy word for sawdust) and silcon dioxide (sand) in the mix. I know those are common for some mixes, but with it being proprietary, for all you know you could be getting an extremely expensive bottle of 90% sawdust.
    Its amazing how effective talented marketers can be. All you need to do is find somebody with a PhD, a good marketing team without ethics, and a few testimonials from people that are riding the placebo wave and you have yourself a multi million dollar MLM empire.

    • Michael Matthews

      I just checked that out and uh, yeah, lol.

      And yup, that’s all it takes. Shitty people.

    • Nathan H

      If anyone is serious about alkaline
      The first thing you need is a kangen water machine and start at 7.5ph over the course of a month build that up to 9.5ph then stay there forever
      And keep up with your food diet and training.
      You’ll be healthy inside and out !!!

  • wayneo

    I really need to come up with a way to market the next fad diet scheme. It’s just getting too easy to come up with some bullshit pseudo-science and push it onto desperate overweight people as a cure for all their problems. Even guys like Kevin Trudeau who get pinched for their con-man schemes still have a group of cult like followers who will defend their busted dogmatic preachings with not only their last breath, but their last dollar. I don’t know if I can reconcile that type of a morally bankrupt attitude with my conscience, though.

    Next fad diet idea: All food that comes in contact with plastic or artificial materials as a result of it’s packaging absorbs “toxins” (we can make up scary chemical names later) and should be avoided. Even apples that come in plastic bags or any processed food in a wrapper. Only foods transported in wooden, natural crates are considered clean. Paper bags contain some other weird chemical which make them non-viable unless they are produced in our special toxin free plant. We can sell at home box-making kits for when people go to the grocery store and a line of paper/cloth bags with elitist slogans written on the side so everyone knows they are toxin free. We can also license the concept and our name to companies who change their packaging material to our proprietary toxin free biodegradable package so our drones know which food they can buy.

    I’ll split the profits with you Mike, what do you say?

    • Michael Matthews

      Lol the sad thing is that would absolutely work with certain people.

  • Shane Sorrento

    Very timely article, I was at a networking meeting last week being pushed Kangin Water, Alkaline Water that “Cures Cancer, Psoriasis, etc….” and believe it or not by a medical doctor (Sketchy). I thought I have seen every multi level marketing plan out there, but this one takes the cake. At a cost of 2-3k for these machines! LAMO (a sucker born every day.) I started my own research on alkalinity just to see what was up and came to the same conclusion that the body self regulates and the benefits touted are grossly overstated.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Yeah those water machines are a real racket. My mom fell for it, haha. Water tastes like shit too.

      • Shane Sorrento

        Hi Mike, Not sure what is the best way to pose a question, so I am just replying here.
        Let me start by saying thank you, your articles are excellent, very insightful and full of great info. I have both BLS and Beyond BLS, both excellent. I started training again roughly 15 months ago after a long hiatus, due to a variety of factors, namely the fact I am self employed and put other needs in place of my own.
        I hit 240lbs, and probably in excess of 30% body fat. I seen a picture of myself on facebook, I looked disgusting, and decided to get myself back in gear and began my transformation. I followed a year long routine from a book called huge by flex believe it not, which gave me a really strong foundation. The program utilizes a lot of training principles you talk about and compartmentalizes training in 3 month blocks with a week break in between for rest. I’m now down to 197 and 12% body fat, and I successfully re-compositioned a lot of my fat to muscle (proving it is possible).
        I then stumbled upon you somehow, though as a practitioner of the martial arts for over 20 years, I really shouldn’t preface it like that because I believe that when a student is ready his teacher will appear, lol! That is the say that when you travel down any path, you start to find, meet or become aware of things that will help further your progress towards your goals or fulfill your objectives.
        I had to write you because, I am very happy I found your books, I think your books are great and they are definitely helping me tie in a lot of what I have already learned and have been doing but also expand upon it. I have been following your routine for the last 3 months and I have seen some significant progress, particularly following the 5% rule and adapting your warm up routine. I look forward to sharing with you the changes once I can crack the 10% body fat mark.
        I read most of your stuff including your article on fasted and fed states and I have quick question (though you may not be able to tell, lol). I weight train in the mornings and then rather than do cardio right after as I was doing I space it out per your suggestion, which personally I think makes a lot more sense, but I digress. The time I do cardio varies depending on my day but typically its late, however due to my eating schedule I find myself in the position that my cardio session is around the time that I would normally eat a meal. My question is, if I eat before I do cardio, how long should I wait to do cardio to maximize fat loss or should I wait until after cardio to eat, and if so how long after? Thank you in advance for your time and advise, keep up the great work. Best Regards.

        • Thanks a lot Shane. I really appreciate the support and that’s great you’re rolling on the program and doing well.

          You don’t have to do your cardio fasted. You’d have to wait too long anyway. Even a scoop of whey takes about 2 to 3 hours to “clear” insulin-wise.

          Just eat and do your cardio after. It’ll be fine. 🙂

  • Cam

    Hi Mike, Mate in BLS you say that carbs at dinner restrict the Test release and the body eating fat throughout the night. I heard that in the next book (which I haven’t been able to get yet) you have new evidence that that might not be the case. Can you help me out on this one?

    • Michael Matthews

      I was referring to GH actually and upon further research, I’ve changed my stance on this. When you eat your carbs doesn’t seem to affect anything, really.

      I’m changing this in the second edition of the book, which will be out soon. 🙂

  • Matthew Michael Crown

    Great article, stating what I have been trying to get across to people for a long time, better than I have.
    I would add that I talked to a guy who markets those “alkaline water machines”. He said he used to believe that the positive results many get from them were from the alleged alkalizing action, but now believes that is only 5%. The real benefit comes from the ionized water, which makes the water more absorbable, with many associated benefits.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Glad you liked it.

      I haven’t looked into ionized water but I bet it’s bullshit too. Many people that get those machines go from drinking little to no water every day to drinking enough AND they make lifestyle changes like eating healthier and exercising and then ascribe it all to the voodoo water…

  • Thijs Oosting

    Hello Mike, My name is Thijs and I from Holland. I love your website and I have bought your book “bigger leaner stronger.” Its absolutely awesome. However I have a question regarding nutrition. I like to read a lot about nutrition and a while ago I found out about a alternative eating method called “sequential eating.” Have you heard of it? Basically it describes that people are meant to eat raw foods because raw foods basically carry all the enzymes needed for good absorption.

    All the non raw foods are supposed to not include such enzymes and therefore the stomach needs to create a certain PH value in order to break down the particular food in the stomach. Therefore it is said that when people want to eat “non raw” foods, so basically anything that nature doesn grow itself, they describe its best to eat foods seperately and only eat certain mixures. Big no no’s are combinations such as starches and protein because it is said that for starches, the stomach needs to create an alkaline environment and for proteins acidic. eating them together would mean that for both less is absorbed. Such “bad combinations” would also leave the stomach much later, resulting in bad absorption for all the foods eated after that combination for at least 8 hours.

    It is advised not to eat when a previous meal is still being digested and so due to all the different absorption rates and such it is suggested to eat protein rich food, such as meat and fisch, only in the last meal of day, because meat would take at least 6 hours to be digested.

    I was wondering what you think of this eating method, because i find it extremely difficult to reach my daily protein requirements when following this method (especially since I dont react well on whey protein shakes and I have to eat a lot of meat in the last meal of the day).

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks man! I really appreciate it!

      I may write an article on raw foods as it’s quite the craze these days, but the bottom line is this: cooking food isn’t nearly as harmful as raw food advocates will claim and some foods are actually better absorbed cooked.

      There’s nothing wrong with eating raw fruits, veggies, nuts, etc., but it’s not going to transform your health if you already eat plenty of cooked, nutritious foods.

      Food combining theories are silly and unscientific. It’s been debunked for weight loss purposes:

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10805507

      I guarantee you that if you simply ate a balanced diet of nutritious foods on a schedule you like, you’d notice no difference.

  • Hi Mike, really great article as always! I was planning on writing one for my own website but you’ve saved me a job as this is extremely comprehensive, objective and helpful. I’ve had a few friends getting into alkaline dieting lately and while they swear by it I’ve always been very skeptical. I even tried alkaline juicing for a while but found there to be no positive impact over and above following my normal healthy diet. If it’s ok with you, I would like to share this with my audience over at http://www.ingfit.com as a curated article? Best, Lee

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Yeah my wife got into juicing but lost her enthusiasm when she realized how quickly caloric beverages add up. Now she does some veggie juicing here and there, but no fruit.

      If you mean duplicating the article on your domain, I’d appreciate if you didn’t because it hurts both your and my SEO. Google doesn’t like it.

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  • rukmal

    Another good way to prepare your diets
    http://www.ingfit.com

  • Jay

    I don’t know about now but years ago Tony Robbins endorsed “Innerlight” products by a “Dr.” Young which were based on the acid-alkaline diet approach. It’s real close to vegan diet. I’ve been running across the alkaline concept a lot and it seems to be the main justification for vegetarianism diets nowadays. As for cancer, they say that cancer can’t exist in an alkaline environment. They promote a “live” blood analysis test that supposed to show ugly stuff in your blood and alkaline people have clear blood with only round red blood cells. Thanks for the good article addressing this.

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