Acidic foods are some of the latest villains in medicine. An industry of alkaline producing food supplements has popped up promoting the benefits of eating concentrated greens powders and drinking alkalinizing water made from costly machines. Advocates of this shift away from acidic foods suggest they encourage the development of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis as well as other common disorders. Is there merit to this acid fever or are we just burning holes in our wallets?
What is an Acidic food?
Foods, when burned, leave a measurable ash residue. The gauge of chemical acidity or alkalinity of that ash is called its pH as evaluated by a litmus test. pH of urine has also been used to evaluate acidity in the body. By these two test methods certain foods like meats, dairy, eggs and grains increase acidity levels, while fruit and vegetables have an alkaline influence. A small yet growing body of literature implicates food acidity with a host of diseases. A balanced pH is needed to prevent these diseases. It is thought that the Western diet is responsible for so much chronic disease because it relies heavily on meats, dairy and grains and does not emphasize vegetables and other mineral rich foods.
The human body is equipped to manage acidity through a variety of means in different organs. The lungs breathe out acid in the form of carbon dioxide gas. The kidneys get rid of acid in urine. The pancreas secretes alkaline fluids to buffer the stomach acids when they reach the intestines. The skeleton loses basic minerals like calcium and magnesium to the bloodstream in response to increases in blood acid levels. Each organ system has a specific zone of acidity in which it functions best. Any deviation from this standard pH results in a push to recalibrate the acidity. Chronic consumption of foods that increase the acid load in the body coupled with insufficient intake of alkaline mineral foods cause a net acid increase. If the systems designed to manage the pH equilibrium are impaired then it is thought disease likely follows. In fact, with age our kidneys ability to excrete acids and retain alkaline bases depreciates. It then becomes more important as we grow older to be aware of our net acidic food consumption.
Cancer is at the heart of the controversy of the alkaline diet. Research shows that immune cells work best in an alkaline environment and cancer cells flourish in more acidic environments. What’s more, in acidic environments blood iron is more readily available for infectious microorganisms and cancer cells to utilize. When the environment is more alkaline, iron is bound more tightly to a molecule, preventing it from being used by disease causing processes. Some researchers argue that this is evidence for an alkaline diet to prevent and perhaps treat cancers. Very limited clinical trials have been able to reveal whether this is an accurate assumption, but the belief persists. So how do we reconcile the limited evidence with the strong anecdotal beliefs that an alkaline diet equates to healthier living?
The Alkaline diet recommends what are generally acknowledged to be healthy eating principles. Some research demonstrates that many components of our blood and immune systems function best in an alkaline milieu. If one were to adopt its general rules – to eat less meat and grains and eat more fruits and vegetables – we could prevent disease. Meats produce inflammation in the body. Grains, especially gluten containing grains, are more and more being implicated in autoimmune diseases like type 1 Diabetes, Celiac disease, and Colitis. They too produce inflammation in people who are vulnerable to the effects of gluten. Perhaps this inflammation is the primary culprit in the progression to disease. Whether these diseases are also helped because of acid-base balance remains to be seen. As of yet the alkaline diet has not been substantially scrutinized by the proverbial litmus test of medicine, the randomized control trial. Regardless, its principles support dietary and lifestyle changes that align themselves with current nutrition understanding to help reverse acidic conditions and prevent the same diseases. Investing in alkalinizing water and supplement protocols also remains to be seen. Before making these investments it is very important to consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner with knowledge of these theories and medicines to keep informed and get a fresh perspective.
For more information on this topic join Dr. Bobby Parmar at a presentation on The Alkaline Lifestyle Saturday December 11 at 3:30 pm located at the SPEC building at 2150 Maple St. Vancouver. Admission by donation.
Dr. Bobby Parmar