What is the alkalising diet?
The pH levels in our digestive tract vary quite a bit according to what role that part of the body plays in the digestive process. For example the pH of saliva is between 6.0 and 7.5, whereas the stomach needs has an acidic pH between 1.5 and 3.5 to help us break down our food. However, the pH level of our blood is has a very narrow variance and is slightly alkaline at 7.35-7.45.
As our body is slightly alkaline, the theory behind the alkalising diet is that we should eat predominantly alkaline foods in order to maintain the optimal pH levels for a healthy body. Alkalising foods are those that show a predominantly alkaline mineral content once they are broken down. It is important to remember that when following an alkalising diet you are interested in the pH levels of the mineral content of the food after it is broken down, not the pH levels before you eat it. It is recommended when following an alkaline diet that 70-80%% of the foods you eat should be alkalising, but it is okay to also eat some neutral and mildly acidic foods to make up the rest.
What foods should I enjoy as part of my alkalising diet?
The foods that have an alkalising effect on the body are those that are low in acid producing sugars, the ones that we already know are good for us! Green vegetables like spinach, broccoli, sprouts, bean sprouts, kale and cucumber have some of the highest recorded alkaline content… and grasses, like wheatgrass and barley grass, are a brilliant source of alkaline. Avocado, celery, lettuce, rocket, tomatoes, radish and chives are great too – just think of the epic salads you could make!
In fact, most vegetables can be included in the alkalising diet. Baby new potatoes, carrots, leeks, squash, pumpkin, swede, asparagus and courgettes (veggies that make up some of the best-loved soups) are all alkaline. Some beans (like butter beans and soy beans) are alkalising but most beans and pulses are neutral pH. However, they should be included to keep the diet well balanced. Commonly eaten grains are a bit trickier to include as they are high in starchy, acid- producing sugar but quinoa, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, salba and kamut can all be included in the alkaline diet. If you are worried about having to cut out those quick and easy or sushi lunches, remember rice is okay in small quantities as it is fairly neutral in its pH, so veggie sushi once in awhile is fine! You can also replace your sandwiches with easy wraps, or use sprouted bread to make them. Dairy produce is considered to be acidifying but if you just love a ‘creamy’ dish once in awhile, never fear – you can use almond, coconut or goats milk instead of cow’s milk.
Most fruit is acidifying, but there are some notable and delicious exceptions, like coconut, pomegranate, and even grapefruit, lemons and limes. This may seem a bit counterintuitive as most of us think of citrus fruits as acidic, but these actually have an alkalising effect on the body because they are low in acid-producing sugars whilst having a high alkaline mineral content.
Lots of herbs and spices like parsley, basil, thyme, mint, coriander, ginger and cumin that we commonly use to add flavour and pizzazz our food also have an alkalising effect on the body, so there is no need to worry that you are going to be subsisting on bland, boring meals!
What foods should I avoid / eat sparingly as part of my alkalising diet?
The main acidifying culprits are meat, alcohol and drinks high in caffeine (coffee, black tea, green tea, colas and energy drinks). All meat has an acidifying effect on the body, including but not limited to: beef, lamb, pork, venison and offal. Most fish are acidifying too, including shellfish (prawns, shrimp, lobster, mussels and oysters), although freshwater fish are so to a lesser degree.
Dairy, such as milk, yogurt, ice cream should be avoided, as well as eggs, goats’ cheese and soy (vegan) cheese. Oils should be avoided especially if cooked or in solid form, like margarine.
Rice and noodles as well as bread and pasta are also moderately acidifying, although rice and soy are not as acidic as wheat and rye, and it’s okay to eat sprouted and gluten/yeast free varieties of breads and wraps.
Although most vegetables are acceptable, mushrooms are acidifiers, as are quite a few nuts (like cashews, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, chestnuts, and macadamia nuts). Dried fruit is highly acidic, but even most fresh fruits (other than the ones names previously) have an acidifying effect on the body.
Anything with sweeteners in it is also a no-go, not only artificial sweeteners but fructose, sucrose, corn syrup, maple syrup and honey to name a few examples. Cut out sweets and chocolate and avoid pre prepared condiments like mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, pickle, vinegar, miso and wasabi – it’s best to stick to fresh sauces that you have made yourself, really. The high sugar content in alcohol and energy drinks is why it’s important to avoid them. Drugs, including over-the-counter, prescription drugs and cigarettes, are also offenders in terms of the alkalising diet – why bother cutting out fresh fruit or even chocolate when you’re puffing away on 20 a day?!
It is also important to think about what you are drinking. Fruit juices, like fruit are acidifying, squashes and flavoured waters are too. As mentioned above, alcohol, coffee and tea should be avoided, although you can substitute black and green teas with herbal ones, and there are a staggering variety of those out there. Obviously you need to stay hydrated, but even tap water is normally quite acidic! It’s best to drink ionised alkaline water. There are quite a few brands of bottled water out there claiming to be alkaline and ionising, but the antioxidants only last about a day, whereas the higher pH will last a couple of weeks max, so whether the water you are drinking really is what it says on the bottle by the time it gets to you is debatable . You also need to think about the material the water is packaged in – usually plastic, which is slightly porous and so dust particles and all sorts can penetrate it eventually, as well as the chemicals from the plastic leeching into the water over time. Tap water can also contain lots of other nasties, so it’s best just make your own alkaline water (better for the wallet too)! You can buy alkaline water ionisers which filter, ionise, alkalise and mineralise your water so that you get antioxidant rich water straight out of your tap. Something as simple as using a water distiller or filter and adding a slice of alkalising lemon or lime is a relatively easy positive step if you’re not ready to commit to spending money on an ioniser.
What are the benefits of an alkalising diet?
The foods which make up the majority of the alkailzing diet are high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, while also being low in sugar. This combination makes for an extremely healthy diet that can really help to energize you and allow you to loose weight. If you are prone to headaches, colds and flu, or get congested easily, the alkalising diet is a good choice as it helps to reduce mucous production. Raising the pH of your urine by eating a diet high in vegetables and low in animal protein has the added benefit of helping to prevent kidney stones. There is also speculation amongst researchers that the alkalising diet, which is high in magnesium and potassium, may slow bone loss and muscle waste and reduce the risk of arthritis and osteoporosis, but this hasn’t been proven. Many proponents of the alkalising diet also claim that it reduces the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Again, there is no hard evidence for this, but the phytonutrients in the leafy greens that are an important part of the alkalising diet have long been thought to help prevent cancer and research has shown that people who follow a diet high in vegetables, cut out smoking and alcohol, hydrate properly and combine their diet with a healthy amount of exercise do show a reduced propensity for developing cancers.
What are the risks (and myths) of the alkalising diet?
Like any diet that heavily promotes certain families of foods, there is the risk of ending up with a less balanced diet with nutrient deficiencies such as protein, calcium and essential fatty acids. It is very important not to mistake the alkalising diet as an alkaline only diet. Be sure to and keep the families of foods you eat fairly balanced and to include your 20-30% daily allowance of neutral and slightly acidic foods, like rice, pulses, and even freshwater fish (unless you want to go vegan-alkalising, in which case balance with nuts, etc.).
There is no concrete evidence that the alkalising diet alone can prevent cancer, but switching to any vegetarian diet is great way to start reducing your risk… as long as you take other steps too, especially regular exercise. Although exercise does lower the pH as it is used by the body to extract the CO2 and H+ produced in the muscles by the breakdown of glucose, there are buffers in place to prevent acidosis and acid death (which happens if the pH of the blood falls below 6.8). There is a lot of controversy over whether a high alkaline diet affects the pH of the blood and reduces the acidity of cells in the body; medical practitioners argue that the blood in the body is so well ‘buffered’ that it is almost impossible to affect its pH through diet (though it does affect your urine), and so any effect will be transitory and minimal at best. Recommending the alkalising diet to cancer sufferers is a current trend among alternative health practitioners as it is often argued that high levels of acidity in the body allow cancers to thrive, so increasing body pH levels seems a rational way to counteract this. In fact, research shows that it is the cancer itself that creates the acidic environment in which it grows, rather than an acidic environment in the body encouraging the cancer to grow, so this argument is actually a bit dubious. It is also important to remember that suddenly switching to an extreme diet plan like this one can be dangerous for someone with cancer, so please do not do so without proper medical advice from an oncologist. This diet can also be dangerous for people who suffer from diabetes as the low sugar intake can run the risk of developing hypoglycaemia, so again, talk to your doctor first!
Do be careful taking as gospel a lot of what you read about this diet online – WebMD has indicated that there are quite a lot of sites out there which are proponents of the alkaline diet that show quite a lot of the signs of ‘diet fraud’, presenting one-sided and unsubstantiated information on its benefits.