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Weighing the pros and cons of an alkaline diet

Weighing the pros and cons of an alkaline diet

While an alkaline diet can have its benefits, many of the claims around it are untrue
Representational image | Shutterstock

Proponents of the alkaline diet claim that by simply shifting the nature of your foods from “acidic” to “alkaline”, you can change your body’s pH levels, gaining a ream of health benefits in the process. Most famously touted in Robert O Young’s book The pH Miracle, the alkaline diet maintains a sizeable following today. But does it do what it claims to do?

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that food alone can change the pH levels of our body. These claims, however, have been time and again proven to be false. It does not help that Young himself has been incarcerated multiple times for falsely claiming to be a doctor.

So, does it mean that the alkaline diet is without benefits? Is over-consumption of a certain type of food bad or is it all just a hoax that should simply be brushed aside? And what exactly are pH levels of the human body?

Let us first understand the pH levels of various parts of our bodies.

pH levels of survival

The scale pH (Potential of Hydrogen) is a measurement of how acidic or alkaline (basic) something is, this scale spans between 0-14 with 0-6.9 being acidic, 7.0 being neutral and 7.1 – 14 being alkaline. Our body works in maintaining a regulated pH levels ranging between a slightly alkaline scale of 7.35 – 7.45 pH.

A table of the pH levels and its functions of the various parts of the body is given below to help in better understanding the spectrum.

Organ, fluid or membrane pH level Function
Skin Natural pH is between 4 and 6.5 Barrier protection from microbes
Urine 4.6 to 8.0 Limit overgrowth of microbes


Gastric 1.35 to 3.5 Break down protein
Bile 7.6 to 8.8 Neutralize stomach acid, aid in digestion
Pancreatic fluid 8.8 Neutralize stomach acid, aid in digestion
Vaginal fluid <4.7 Limit overgrowth of opportunistic microbes
Cerebrospinal fluid 7.3 Bathes the exterior of the brain and spinal cord
Intracellular fluid 6.0–7.2 Due to acid production in cells

Source: NIH

Depending on the body part, different pH levels are needed for bodily functions to be executed properly.

The acidity of modern lifestyles

Research shows that food humans consume today compared with the food consumed by humans in the pre-agricultural era (10,000 years ago) and the pre-industrial era (200 years ago) is lacking in magnesium, potassium and fibre while also being rich in saturated fats, simple sugars, sodium, and chloride. This can result in metabolic acidosis, which is building up of acid in the body. This is caused when the kidneys are not able to dispose enough acids from the body.

The truth

Alkaline diets generally incorporate a variety of naturally grown foods while trying to avoid processed foods. This approach is generally considered healthy and approved by many experts too. However, the part where it recommends leaving out animal-based foods like meat, dairy and eggs and non-animal-based foods like, walnuts and black tea, because of their acidic nature is where it gets tricky as these foods are also rich in a lot of other nutrients.

“Having a balanced meal is always preferred to having just an alkaline diet,” said Mugdha Pradhan, functional nutritionist, and CEO at iThrive, “The ratio that is propagated along with the diet is unfounded.”

When asked if she would recommend the alkaline diet to anyone, Mugdha Pradhan plainly responded, “No, we recommend only balanced diets. It is quite difficult to eliminate acidic food completely from your diet and is mostly not recommended.”

Interestingly, Ishi Khosla, a clinical nutritionist based out of Delhi, cited research that reported Alkaline pH of diet rich in plant food has a significance not only for digestion and longevity but also for heart health, cognition, cancer prevention, better outcomes during chemotherapy, bone and muscle building, availability of minerals, chronic back and joint pains.

While there remains a lack of scientific evidence on the benefits of the diet, Khosla points out that there can be benefits to drinking alkaline water, particularly for those with acid reflux. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition that occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back into the oesophagus – a tube connecting your mouth and stomach, can be much better treated when eating a Mediterranean diet coupled with alkaline water compared to just trying to manage it with over-the-counter acid reducers. ‘“All in all, alkaline water can play a huge role in elevating health & prevent disease,” she concluded.

Benefits for bone health

In a study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health led by Gerry K. Schwalfenberg, it was stated that the increase in the consumption of fruits or vegetables as recommended in the alkaline diet may benefit bone health, reduce muscle wasting, as well as ease other persistent conditions such as hypertension and strokes.

It can also result in the increase of intra-cellular magnesium, growth hormones and a change in alkalinity which can respectively lead to improvements from the health of the heart and blood vessels to memory and cognition, activation of vitamin D and even benefit chemotherapeutic agents in some cases.

It would be cautious to think that the alkaline diet may be able to play a part in reducing the severity of chronic diseases that are linked with old age and promote a healthy living, unless of course, quality foods are left out like some versions of the diet recommend.

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