Skeptic at Work: The Alkaline Diet

By Mojo.

It’s been awhile.

Allow me to explain. First off, the company I have kept for the past 4.5 months has been less than intellectually stimulating with most conversations being about women’s breasts or the size of a recent bowel movement. Inspiration for research into a stated scientific fallacy by a coworker has been sparse to say the least. Also, the combination of reduced free time to do research and reduction in the number of tubes my ISP provides has culminated in a great deal of frustration when conducting said research. Taking 2-4 minutes per website pushes my patience to Job-like limits. Despite this, I could not resist delving into the topic of “acid/alkaline theory of disease” after a coworker brought it up.

The conversation went something like this:
Me: “Did you know bad breath is caused by a specific kind of bacteria on the back of your tongue?”

Coworker: “Did you know that if you eat alkaline foods your body will naturally fight off that bacteria?”

Me: “…. Did you know that you’re full of s*^&?”

First off, although it was not directly contended by this person (right away), my initial statement was lacking in that this bacteria is not the SOLE cause of bad breath. It does however account for, depending on the study, 70 to 90% of bad breath in humans. The rest is divided into various causes that similarly have to do with oral hygiene/cleanliness.
http://jcm.asm.org/cgi/content/full/41/2/558

http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTON77980320080407

http://www.tau.ac.il/~melros/bda/index.html

I want to get this out of the way since a) I was technically wrong (although I would argue that I used short-hand) and b) without the explanation of how in the world my coworker’s statement came up you may be confused (although I guess my statement was similarly confusing as it was brought up out of nowhere).

Well that’s done. Moving on.

Before I delved deeper into this philosophy, t
he notion that the body will “naturally” defend itself against things as frivolous as bad breath was, on the surface, such a humorous statement that I’m sure my eyes rolled back in my head faster than those around me thought possible. After asking follow up questions, it became apparent that this particular coworker subscribed to a (new to me) particular brand of alt-med called the Acid/Alkaline Theory of Disease or the Alkaline Diet. In summary, the premises of this theory state that when the pH level of the body becomes too low, or acidic, the person suffers from acidosis which can lead to just about every kind of acute or chronic ailment on the planet. Unfortunately, many foods necessary for survival are acid producing and therefore, a diet that is rich in alkaline-producing food will counter-act the acids and bring the body back to its natural pH balance (around 7.35-7.45).

On the surface, nothing is too outlandish. Acidosis (and its counter-part alkalosis) is a real affliction caused when the pH levels of your blood get out of whack. It can cause several painful and harmful side-effects. So-called alkaline-producing foods, like fruits and vegetables have been proven to be extremely healthy and are recommended by nutritionists everywhere. So where does this theory go wrong?

Well, pretty much right from the get go. Diet has very little impact on the pH levels of your body. The body has several built-in and very effective abilities designed to keep its pH levels at a certain level. If it didn’t, you’d notice right away as you slowly and painfully died. If the pH of your body falls anywhere outside the 0.10 window mentioned earlier, irreversible cell damage will occur. This is what is happening when you hold your breath or decline the urge to pee for extended periods of time. Your body will react violently to ensure it is continually maintaining this balance. When you exercise, for example, acidity levels in your blood increase due to lactic acid build-up. Your body compensates by breathing heavily, massively reducing the levels of CO2 and keeping the acidity of your blood at its normal levels. In fact, breathing itself is the main method your body uses to maintain this balance with urinating coming in at a distant second. Acidosis’ main causes usually stem from problems with breathing or the kidneys and NOT from the dietary decisions of the person. Since exercise is a known cause of increased acidity, do those who advocate this theory suggest doing it less?

Another issue conveniently forgotten by proponents of this idea is the oft overlooked pancreas and its role in digestion. Everyone knows that the stomach is an acidic environment (a pH of about 3). As food enters the stomach, regardless of its acid or alkaline-producing qualities (which, by the way differ from site to site, a fact this author is aware of and excuses away by stating “we’re not scientific institutes”) it is immediately combined with hydrochloric acid before it enters the digestive tract. Obviously this would be very bad for the body if it did not have some means of eliminating that acidity. That’s where our friendly pancreas enters the fray, secreting an alkaline “juice” into the mix that cancels out the acid the stomach has just introduced into the rest of the body. This means that regardless of the food you have just eaten, it will be combined with a highly acid substance and then subsequently a highly alkaline substance.

One would also expect foods that have a high pH value to be rated as more alkaline than acidic but according to this site, eggs (a pH level of 7-8) are rated as acidic. Apples on the other hand have a pH level of about 3 (very acidic) but are classified as alkaline. Funny how things that are known to be good for you, like fruits and vegetables, are classified as alkaline despite their low pH values. Doesn’t that run contrary to the whole idea?

Lastly, but not exhaustively, the main measures of your body’s pH levels, as defined by the proponents of this theory is to directly measure the acidity of your saliva and/or urine with litmus paper. The issues with this are summed up beautifully by experts who unanimously agree that your saliva and urine are NOT, in fact, your blood. Your urine never comes in contact with your blood (if it does you have other issues) and its acidity can fluctuate a great deal throughout the course of a single day. Likewise, saliva has a pH that is usually a full scale point (which is actually 10 orders of magnitude) lower than blood. The claim is that they are related and that a high saliva pH is indicative of your blood pH but this has never been shown to be the case.

The statement regarding the pH balance of our bodies smacked of all the classic pseudo-science, new-agey mumbo jumbo to which I have become attuned. Wishy-washy statements like “acid lifestyle” and even “body pH” conflicts with everything we know to be true about the body and are meaningless. This idea also relies on a very limited understanding of human digestion and the nature of disease. One of the most woefully, patently-false statements I came across was that an acidosis can cause tuberculosis. How the hell does that happen? Tuberculosis is caused exclusively by a very specific kind of bacteria (much like bad breath!  See what I did there???). /facepalm

Of course I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject and I may have gotten several things incorrect. I encourage you to do your own research on the subject. If you want dietary advice seek out the opinions of medical and nutritional health experts and if you’re feeling ill, go see your doctor.

If you suspect your blood’s pH levels are out of whack, you may want to consult a mortician.

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2 responses to “Skeptic at Work: The Alkaline Diet

  1. I thought the idea of the alkaline diet was not that the body will fall into a state of acidosis with unhealthy eating habits, but rather the compensatory measures that the body takes to balance the pH when too much acidifying food is eaten causes depletion of vital minerals (from bones, etc.) which leads to health problems. Of course the body maintains its pH within a narrow range, but the question is at what cost? Proponents of the diet claim it is at the cost of health of your bones, tissues, etc. I’m still not clear on how factual this is.

  2. Acid and alkaline body conditions are ancient Chinese medicinal terms. Unfortunately, they make no literal sense. The words acid and alkali in Chinese medicine are metaphorical, like everything else in Chinese art, medicine, language and philosophy.

    The five elements (wood, metal, etc) correspond to endocrinological symptoms that are of course nothing to do with wood or metal. They just used simple, metaphorical terms to help more people understand their health.

    This begs the question: what are the Chinese describing when they say someone has “acid-(like symptoms)”?