What You Need To Know About The Latest Wellness Fad: The Alkaline Diet

I still have vivid nightmares about chemistry class. Don’t get me wrong, my teachers of the subject were delightful, but their endearing quirkiness was never enough to offset the trauma of balancing equations, multiplying Avogadro’s number, and measuring the pH of a substance.

While I can still recite Avogadro’s number on command (that’s 6.02 x 10 to the 23rd), I completely forget what you’re supposed to do with it, because my high-school prediction was correct: I’ll never use this figure in the real world — except in interpreting nerdy science humor.

I wasn’t quite as discerning when I predicted the future pointlessness of knowing pH — that is, the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. That’s because, all of a sudden, health-hungry consumers everywhere are scrutinizing the pH of their food and water as part of a brand new nutrition fad — the alkaline diet.

What Is An Alkaline Diet?

The premise is basically this: if you eat a diet high in alkaline foods (higher pH), you can “alkalize” your body, which promotes weight loss and protects against cancer and arthritis. If you consume too many acidic foods (lower pH), your body begins to produce acid, which diet proponents swear is harmful to your health. Throwback chemistry lesson: The pH scale runs from 0 to 14, where a pH of 7 is neutral. Foods with a pH lower than 7 are acidic, while those with a pH greater than 7 are alkaline, also known as basic.

“The theory says that blood can become less acidic by differentiating the effects of certain foods as they are converted into waste products by our bodies,” explains Juliana Tamayo, a nutritionist and dietetic intern from Washington, D.C. “Certain foods have an acidic ash while others are alkaline.” 

According to the tenets of the alkaline diet, you can optimize your health if you limit neutral foods, avoid acidic foods, and prioritize alkaline foods. “Neutral foods include starches, sugars, and naturally-occurring fats. Acidic foods include meat, dairy, eggs, and animal proteins. Alkaline foods include fruits, legumes, and vegetables,” Tamayo says.

With every new diet fad, of course, comes a sea of high-priced products making extraordinary promises. As if leaning vegetarian isn’t enough to ensure you’re eating alkaline, enter savvy supplements like alkaline water, which is said to have a higher pH than plain tap water. This hyped-up H20 is, supposedly, optimized with electrolytes to help it achieve its alkaline status.

If you wanted, you could even spend nearly $200 on a reverse osmosis filtration system that increases the alkalinity of your drinking water at home for extra assurance that the pH is primed for your perfect health.

With endorsements from beloved celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Victoria Beckham, the alkaline diet has become all the latest rage. But the question remains: where did this mysterious meal plan come from, and does it have any scientific merit?

Why Are Alkaline Diet Foods So Popular?

First, let’s look at the source. The diet’s founder, Robert Young, first popularized the alkaline approach in 2010, when he wrote a book called The pH Miracle: Balance Your Diet, Reclaim Your Health. The problem? Young isn’t a dietitian or a medical doctor; in fact, he was convicted in 2016 of practicing medicine without a license. And though he still touts himself as an authority on nutrition, Young’s doctorate is reported to be illegitimate, as he obtained it from a non-accredited, now-defunct correspondence school.

Now, I know the founder’s fall from grace isn’t enough to discredit an entire industry but beyond that eyebrow-raising anecdote, there’s simply no evidence to support the diet’s sexy claims.

“There is no research that changing your diet to include more basic foods does actually change your pH,” Tamayo points out. “Our kidneys work effectively at regulating pH, and they do so by releasing bicarbonate ions that lower or increase pH as necessary. The same happens with the respiratory system.”

“The alkaline diet is little more than a fad. Even at the conceptual level, it just doesn’t make sense,” agrees Blaise Collins, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist from Texas. “Our bodies are very complex, and there are always processes occurring to maintain balance. Most of these are regulated by enzymes that require very specific pH to function correctly. With that said, the body will maintain that pH in order to remain, well, alive,” he says.

This process, of course, is called homeostasis — which we all once learned about in science class. The point is, even if we could override the pH of our bloodstream just by altering our diet, we’d likely end up in the hospital with our systems out of whack.

Are There Any Real Alkaline Diet Benefits?

Okay, so you’re not going to metamorphose your body’s makeup by slurping up that alkaline smoothie. But even though the basis of this diet is bunk, is there ever any benefit to knowing our food’s pH?

The answer is that, for most healthy people, the alkalinity of our afternoon meal shouldn’t matter. But for people with chronic conditions, like kidney disease, that disrupt the body’s natural homeostasis, pH can, indeed, make a difference.

“For this population, which includes 37 million Americans, choosing more alkaline foods can be really beneficial for the kidneys,” explains Kate Kanner, R.D.N., L.D.N., a Chicago-based registered dietitian who specializes in working with this group. “Foods like meat, dairy, and cheese are acid-promoting foods and can promote acidosis, a condition associated with declining kidney function. On the flip side, choosing more alkaline foods like vegetables and fruits can promote a less acidic environment in the body, which is healthier for the kidneys,” she says.

“People with kidney disease often need to take a medication called sodium bicarbonate to help regulate the acid/base balance of their blood; and a recent study has shown that eating three cups of fruits and vegetables every day can be just as effective, or more effective, than the medication in managing acidosis in kidney disease patients,” Kanner explains. “Being able to decrease or stop a medication is always a plus, and it’s amazing what a more alkaline type diet can do.”

Even if this condition describes you, think twice before stocking up on snazzy products like alkaline water. While this enhanced H2O is not harmful for most healthy people, the elements in alkaline water may negatively affect the kidneys in those with chronic disease or who are taking certain medications.

The bottom line? Pass on any product that promises to boost your health by “alkalizing” your bloodstream; the so-called “pH miracle” does not exist (nor does, apparently, the founder’s Ph.D.). You should still eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and legumes as part of a balanced, nutritious lifestyle, but the amount of cheese on your broccoli is not the acid test of your overall health.


Have you ever bought into the buzz about fad diets? What did you learn from your experience? Share your wisdom in the comments!

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