The Benefits of an Alkaline Diet: Does it Really Work?

alkaline foods

What do Kelly Ripa, Elle McPherson and Gwyneth Paltrow have in common? They’re all firm believers in the alkaline diet, where you eat more alkaline foods than acidic foods. But does it actually work? Here’s what our experts have to say on the matter.

What is an Alkaline Food?

Before understanding the benefits of an alkaline diet, it’s important to know what people mean when they reference alkaline foods. If you remember your high school chemistry classes, you might remember the difference between an acid and a base. Alkaline foods are foods that are basic in pH, that is to say, not acidic.

Of course, it’s not that simple to figure out which foods belong to which category. Lemon, for example, is an alkaline food, even though it tastes very acidic. That’s because the way in which an acid or alkaline food is defined for these purposes has to do with the way in which it is processed in the body; it has nothing to do with the pH of the food itself.

Kristen Trukova, MS, RD, CSO, CNSC, LDN, is a Clinical Oncology Dietitian at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. She offers some clues into what differentiates acidic and alkaline foods. “In general, foods high in protein and most grains provide more acidity to the diet, while fruits and vegetables provide more alkalinity,” she says.

What is an Alkaline Diet Supposed to Do?

The alkaline diet has been attributed with a great many powers — some might even call them superpowers.

Marie Delcioppo is the owner of Lush Vitality, a health coaching company. She is a self-proclaimed “big proponent” of a high alkaline diet and lifestyle.

“As we are learning more and more, the root of so many of our diseases (from ADD to diabetes and, yes, even cancer) is chronic inflammation brought on by our bodies’ pH becoming acidic,” she says. “The pH of our blood is actually slightly alkaline, so when we continually dump food and products on and in ourselves and expose ourselves to toxins that metabolize as acidic, our body is constantly struggling to combat that acid overload to get back to its natural alkaline state.”

The alkaline diet, therefore, is first and foremost a detoxifying diet, which is meant to keep our bodies operating in the best and most efficient way.

Certified Nutritional Consultant and Co-Founder of Project Juice, Lori Kenyon Farley, says that “If our diet consists of too many items with an acidic effect, our bodies will compensate by leaching minerals from our tissues to maintain the optimal balance. This leaching leads to bone loss, wrinkles, joint inflammation and creates a fertile environment for disease to grow.”

These are just some of the many reasons that so many celebrities have begun touting the benefits of an alkaline diet. Now that we know what they’re supposed to do, just one question remains: does the alkaline diet deliver on its promises?

Do Alkaline Diets Really Work?

Farley admits that many health professionals do not align with her ideas about the alkaline diet. “There are some professionals who believe that blood alkalinity cannot be changed so easily by the foods we consume,” she says.

Trukova is one of these professionals. She claims that blood pH is tightly controlled by the lungs and the kidneys. “There have been claims that persons with cancer should follow an alkaline diet, as cancer cells supposedly cannot survive in an alkaline environment,” she says. “In fact, many body processes rely on a tightly controlled pH environment, and changing the pH of your blood or overall body pH is not possible. No scientific data to support these claims have ever been published.”

But other health professionals, like Dr. Jason Nardi, a chiropractor in the Raleigh metro area who specializes in nutritional and functional medicine, do use alkaline diets in their practices.

“In my practice we use a lot of functional diagnostic testing,” he says. “We look for signs that indicate systemic acidosis.” Systemic acidosis is acidity in the blood often caused by an underlying disease like kidney disease, diabetes or cancer. In Nardi’s opinion, this acidosis can be changed with diet.

“We regularly suggest patients greatly increase their fruit and vegetable intake – Organic is the key,” he says. “Pesticides are acid-forming, and should be avoided. For the meat-eaters that won’t cut back, we suggest going to grass-fed beef instead of conventionally grown beef.”

Good suggestions for anyone to bear in mind. There are, however, some dangers to misinterpreting the demands of the alkaline diet, which generally proscribe a vast increase in fruits and vegetables.

“While an alkaline diet in general is a nutrition choice due to the high content of fruits and vegetables, if followed too strictly, it can be too low in calories and protein to meet a person’s nutrition needs,” says Trukova.

That’s why it’s important to remember that like anything, an alkaline diet should be followed in moderation.

According to Dr. Barry Sears, a leading authority in anti-inflammatory nutrition and president of the non-profit, Inflammation Research Foundation, the alkaline diet “should be termed the slightly alkaline diet.”

“The optimal pH of the blood is between 7.35 and 7.45, which is slightly alkaline,” he says, optimal meaning that the release of oxygen is optimal, to avoid the mobilization of calcium from the bones to lower pH, keeping the blood firmly alkaline and removing stress from your system.

How to Increase the Alkalinity of Your Diet

Even to reach the “slightly” alkaline level recommended by our professionals, most people need to overhaul their diets, or at least make some changes.

“The idea of an alkaline diet is not to eat foods such as protein and grains that can lower blood pH and only fruits and vegetables that can raise blood pH,” says Sears. “What you really need is a balance of both to get to your optimal pH.” His recommendation? One-third of your caloric consumption from low-fat protein, and the rest from non-starchy vegetables and limited fruits.

As for which alkaline foods to choose, leafy greens like kale and spinach, crucifers like broccoli and cauliflower, spices like cinnamon and ginger and whole grains are a good place to start. Acidic foods to reduce or avoid include coffee, processed food, refined sugar and animal proteins.

There are also other steps you can take to increase the alkalinity of your diet. Delcioppo suggests drinking your water with lemon, eating more raw foods, avoiding white or overly processed foods, and even bringing your alkaline diet into your lifestyle, by switching to all-natural cleaners like vinegar or baking soda and using essential oils in place of over-the-counter medications whenever possible.

You can also add alkaline water to your diet. Ryan Emmons is the developer of Waiakea water, a 100 percent naturally alkaline volcanic water. He touts the many proven benefits of Waiakea, including reduced discomfort with acid reflux, detoxifying and reduced wrinkling.

“Although more research is needed, studies show that naturally alkaline water reduce Alzheimer symptoms,” he says. “This is due to the heavy metal chelation qualities of silica found in some naturally alkaline waters.”

He recommends drinking alkaline water as part of a long-term dietary change.

But how much is too much? What’s that sweet spot? According to Farley, “The solution for optimal health and wellness is to consume a diet that consists of 80 percent alkaline foods and 20 percent acid forming. Its actually very simple if you choose real food over processed food, and limit your consumption of meat.”

If you’re considering choosing an alkaline diet for specific health reasons, check with your doctor or healthcare professional first. But if like so many of Hollywood’s starlets, you’re just looking for a way to make your diet healthier, increased alkalinity is a step in the right direction.

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Alkaline foods image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American writer based in Paris. She is particularly interested in the ways in which the stories of one person, one ingredient, one tradition can illustrate differences and similarities in international food culture. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Paste Magazine, and Serious Eats. Twitter: @emiglia | www.emilymmonaco.com.