Fatigue, indigestion, frequent colds, insomnia, joint pain, acne, weight gain—while seemingly disparate symptoms, these bodily complaints may, according to some, share a common culprit: a poor pH balance.
Sound obscure—or overly scientific?
pH refers to the potential of hydrogen, and its proper equilibrium is essential for, well, a properly functioning brain and body. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14, and, as the National Institutes of Health reports, the human body requires a pH level in a very narrow range between 7.35 and 7.45. Your body is a brilliant mechanism and works hard to keep it at this level.
But, some avert, farming practices and a collective shift in the Western diet—one that relies more on processed foods, dairy and meat than the fruits, vegetables and whole grains of our predecessors—results in a glut of acid and a shortage of alkaline, which can interrupt that natural balance. Antibiotics and other medications, less-than-stellar lifestyle choices and a toxic environment, and that delicate pH level is even further compromised. What’s more, the typical Western diet, which is high in saturated fat, sodium, chloride and simple sugars but low in key nutrients like magnesium and potassium, may lead to a number of complications.
Bone loss is chief among them. According to a seven-year study out of the University of California, San Francisco, it was shown that women with chronic acidosis—a surplus of acid—have an increased risk for bone loss and the perils associated with it, such as hip fractures. Why? The theory is that when the body is overly acidic, it sponges calcium from the bones as it strives to reestablish that pH balance.
An imbalance may also result in muscle loss, poor digestion, weight gain (and loss), accelerated aging and immunity that isn’t quite up to par. In summary, some medical professionals believe that an overly acidic system can block the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients, create digestive difficulties and lead to a host of health snags.
But others, citing the need for more evidence and other factors, are less eager to jump on the alkaline/acidity bandwagon in the name of pH—a diet that has celebrities from Jennifer Aniston and Kelly Ripa to Victoria Beckham touting its benefits.
“While diet and other metabolic processes can affect the pH level of your urine, what you eat does not determine your blood’s pH level,” says Katherine Brooking, MS RD. “And the pH of your urine has no effect on weight loss and no correlation with the risk of cancer or inflammation-related medical conditions.” Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, LD, FADA and director of University Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louise (as well as the former president of the American Dietetic Association) concurs: “The body is well tuned to keep the proper pH level throughout—more acidic in the stomach, more neutral or alkaline in the blood—but the body does this on its own and no evidence indicates that diet has much impact other than short-term digestion.”
What most experts do agree on, however, is that the fundamentals of an alkaline diet may be a huge boon for overall health, in that the foods it advocates promote well-being. Here’s how to give it a try, no matter where you stand on the controversy:
1. Know the difference between alkaline and acidic foods
First things first, understand that our bodies need to be slightly alkaline—but that it takes ten times the amount of alkalinity to counterbalance acid. As discussed, acidic foods are the cornerstone of the standard American diet: factory-farmed meats, dairy, processed foods, coffee, diet sodas (and other chemically-laden drinks), alcohol and that sugar that seems to be just about everywhere. Alkaline foods, on the other hand, are full of detoxifying and immunity-building chlorophyll and other vital nutrients: dark, leafy greens, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, watermelon and papaya, to name just a few.
2. Switch out your sweetener, dairy, grains, meat and go-to-drinks
Changing your diet is easier said than done, but it all starts with making easy shifts that foster a sound, long-term approach to eating, whether that’s for a better pH balance or to simply feel better. If you’re a coffee drinker, you might take your java with cream and sugar—both of which increase acidity. Instead, sweeten your cup of Joe with Stevia, maple syrup or raw honey, and give it some creaminess with soy, almond or rice milk.
Can’t picture life without cheese? Go for soy or goat cheese (the latter is especially good on salads) or cottage cheese, which falls on the low-acid side of the spectrum. If you’re accustomed to eating white bread, pastas and pastries, consider switching to sprouted wheat bread, quinoa and brown rice. Also, rather than filling your glass with that aforementioned coffee—as well as soft drinks and beer—reach for herbal teas and good old fashioned water. As for that meat? As WebMD points out, meat tends towards the acid side; if you are going to eat it, be wise about it. Aim for hormone-free, organic products, lean proteins and red meat in moderation (if any).
3. Be realistic
All that being said, be realistic if you attempt to balance your body’s pH through an alkaline diet. It’s easy to be swept away by the allure suggested by some campaigns, claiming that the alkaline diet is a cure-all for aggravating symptoms like low energy and larger, more significant problems like heart disease and osteoporosis. Realize instead that any lifestyle defined by smart choices—including a plant-based diet that prohibits processed foods, alcohol and sugar—encourages optimal health. Eat to improve your pH balance, yes, but also eat to improve overall you.