This is a guest blog by my friend, fitness expert and strength coach Jiini Cicero, BS, CSCS.
I have a reputation at my gym for being a myth-buster. Not a week goes by that a client doesn’t ask me whether a particular “muscle-enhancing” supplement is legit (usually not) or how many studies support creatine’s efficacy (a good many, actually).
I admit: sometimes I have to research these queries. Such was the case when a long-time client recently showed me her alkaline water.
A few months before, this client had begun one of those pH-balanced diets. You know, the ones that emphasize alkaline-forming foods and frequently include charts to differentiate alkaline and acidic foods. To boost her body’s alkalinity, my client was downing four or five bottle of alkaline water daily.
I was intrigued (though admittedly a little skeptical too) but also determined to get to the bottom of whether this so-called miracle water – and pH-balanced diets themselves – are legit or just the latest hype.
What I found surprised and even disturbed me.
What is a pH-Balanced Diet Anyway?
If you weren’t sleeping in high school biochem, you’ll perhaps recall pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity (alkalinity) of a solution. If said solution is less than 7, its pH is acidic; over 7, it becomes basic or alkaline. For the record, pure water has a pH of nearly 7.
Based on those measures, some foods fall into the acidic camp while others are alkaline. Acid and alkaline foods are easy to classify. Fruits and veggies are alkaline, for instance, while meat, dairy, and grain are acidic.
Here’s where things get confusing. Proponents of pH-balanced diets believe every food leaves an acid or alkaline ash or residue in your body. A food can be acidic but leave an alkaline residue, or vice versa. Lemons, for example, have a pH of about 2 – 3 but leave an alkaline residue.
According to a pH-balanced diet, then, if we eat too many foods that form an acid residue – again, not the same thing as an acidic food – your blood can become acidic and all kinds of bad stuff can occur like cancer, osteoporosis, and sprouting devil’s horns. Okay, maybe not that last one.
That’s where my friend’s chart comes in. Without much research to substantiate them, “experts” categorize foods as alkaline-forming and acidic-forming. As I quickly discovered, many of those lists contradict each other and offer no scientific validation.
Busting The pH-Balanced Diet Myths
You spend your Saturday night at a friend’s house or maybe a movie or club. I spend mine reading studies and consulting critics about pH-balanced diets.
All for you, dear reader: I want to bust some myths so the next time your smarmy vegan sister reprimands you for eating “acidic” meat or your mother warns you certain foods create osteoporosis, you’ll be able to intelligently reply.
Myth #1: You Want Your Body to Be Alkaline.
False. Body tissues have different pH levels. Your vagina, for instance, should be acidic, since yeast infections can fester if vaginal tissue becomes too alkaline. (Sorry, guys, if that’s too much information.) And your stomach is incredibly acidic: about 2.0, in fact. Trust me, you wouldn’t be alive if you had an alkaline stomach!
Myth #2: Meat Comprises Most of the Acidic Food in our Diet.
False. According to my friend Dr. Jade Teta, 70% of the acidic foods in our diet come from grains and dairy. Yes, meat is acidic, which is why you eat lots of veggies with your steak.
Myth #3: Sugar is Acidic.
False. Fat, sugar, and starches have a neutral pH because they don’t contain minerals, sulfur, or protein. Now, combining these foods with other ingredients can shift the balance to acidic or alkaline.
Myth #4: You Can Test Your Urine to Determine Whether You’re Acidic.
False. Yes, food can change the pH of your urine, but measuring that pH is fairly useless because that’s no indication about your blood pH or much of anything else for that matter. “Worrying about the pH of your urine makes about as much sense as worrying about the dirt in your trash,” says Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva.
Myth #5: Food Can Change the pH of your Blood.
False. Blood pH is tightly regulated by your kidneys and other organs, which keep it at 7.4. Even slight deviations in blood pH can create serious and even fatal consequences, so your body has numerous checks and balances to keep that from happening.
Myth #6: Cancer Can Only Occur in an Acidic Environment
False. I hear this all the time: cancer can never occur in an alkaline environment, which becomes a legitimate reason to eat predominantly alkaline foods. Sorry folks, that’s just not true. At about 7.4, your blood’s pH is already alkaline, and like I said earlier, you can load up on alkaline-forming foods but it won’t affect blood pH.
Myth #7: Studies Show Acidic Foods can Trigger Osteoporosis, Muscle Wear, and Kidney Damage.
False. While these are all legitimate fears, do a PubMed search: very little evidence supports these theories.
Is the Fountain of Youth Alkaline?
If there’s a diet trend, leave it to Los Angeles to hop all over it. Such is the case with alkaline water, which is basically overpriced designer water with a higher pH level than regular water. Extra electrons in this special water, the story goes, can “clean up” free radical damage in your body.
Advocates claim among its benefits, alkaline water neutralizes acid in your bloodstream, prevents disease, increases nutrient absorption, and slows the aging process. That’s why my client was gulping this exorbitant stuff like we were suffering a drought tomorrow.
Dr. Joseph Mercola calls alkaline water “snake oil on tap” with little to substantiate it. “The reality is, most of the circulating information is distributed by clever marketers, with very little scientific validity to back up their claims,” he says.
Wait: that sounds a lot like pH-balanced diets!
More than just wasting money, alkaline water could also wreck your health. According to Dr. Mercola, “If you fall for this ‘water fad’ you could do some major damage.” Not to mention those nasty phthalates you’re putting in your body from plastic bottles!
Focus less on your water’s pH and more on quality. Always use pure filtered water and drink liberally. I use a liter-sized canteen and fill it three or four times a day. Many gyms have filtered water, and I have a purifier on my kitchen tap.
If you’ve got such a huge bank account to buy useless stuff like alkaline water – yeah, me neither – consider switching to pure filtered water and giving that extra money to a charity that funds clean water in impoverished countries.
Beyond the Hoopla: My Take-Away
If you haven’t guessed, I’m not crazy about pH-balanced diets, and neither were the highly credentialed experts I consulted. I didn’t find much science to support their validity. Besides, for most people they’re too confusing and contradictory.
That said, I do advocate a balance of acid and alkaline foods, which mimic what your Paleolithic ancestors ate. So if you eat a grass-fed sirloin, you want to load about half your plate with leafy and cruciferous veggies. If you have a few slices of cheese, throw them on an apple or salad to balance the acidity.
Your mother or maybe even grandmother taught you this stuff decades ago. As usual, they were on to something.