Nutrition / Food

Alkaline Versus Acidic Foods: What’s the Difference?

Science says alkaline foods may be better for you than acidic ones, but not for the reasons you think.

According to the alkaline diet, you can lose weight, have more energy, and ward off disease—all by simply eating the “right” foods based on their level of acidity. This pH-based based eating plan focuses on cutting out acidic foods, such as alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. In turn, the goal is to increase intake of things like vegetables, nuts, and green juices. We spoke to a few experts to help us debunk the hype around alkaline versus acidic foods, so you can learn how it might affect your body for better or worse.

What does pH balance actually refer to?

“pH is short for the potential of hydrogen, a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of our body’s fluids and tissues,” explains London-based nutritional therapist Melissa Pierson of Roots & Shoots Nutrition. “It is measured on a scale from zero to 14. The more acidic a solution is, the lower its pH. The more alkaline, the higher the number is. Optimally, we want a pH of 7.365, slightly alkaline. This number will fluctuate throughout the day, but the normal range is between 6 and 7.5.”

What does this have to do with my body?

“Different compartments in the body have different pHs that allow various physiologic functions to take place optimally,” states Dr. Michael Wald, a dietician board-certified in nutrition. “The lower the pH, the more acidic the system; the higher the pH, the more alkaline the system. Seven is neutral, and water is the standard with a pH of seven. The pH of the venous and arterial blood is very close, ranging between 7.35 to 7.45.”

However, acidity technically impacts bodily fluid in different ways, and the pH level can vary when it comes to urine and saliva. Dr. Ward says your stomach, due to gastric juice content, has a pH range of 1.5 to 3.5. Your small intestine is around 7.0 to 8.5, and urine anywhere from 4.5 to 8.0. Blood, on the other hand, generally stays around a level of 7.4. That indicates normal body function.

Pierson says any imbalance in pH can be symptomatic of other health factors, which is why nudging the body toward an alkaline state has become one attractive approach. These potentially include reduced absorption of vitamins and minerals, a weakened immune system, asthma and allergies, joint and muscle pain, arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease.

How do you know if a food is considered alkaline or acidic?

Dr. Wald recommends asking yourself a quick set of questions if you’re concerned about the acidity level of certain foods:

“Less processed foods tend to be more alkaline forming—they have all their nutrients still intact and have not been made acidic through processing,” he says. “Alkaline foods contain a lot of alkaline minerals. Look for calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium bicarbonate, manganese, and iron. Almost all vegetables, green, and high-water content foods are alkaline-forming. Sugar is highly acid-forming, especially processed and refined.”

“Most fruits, nuts, legumes, and vegetables tend to be alkaline, so increasing your consumption of these will help balance your pH and reduce any inflammation you may have,” says Pierson.

Dr. Wald also suggests checking the sugar content for everything you eat. Since sugar is “high-acid forming, especially processed and refined,” he notes, it’s no surprise that’s one of the main ingredients to avoid. Pierson additionally advises people to avoid items like cold cuts, conventional meats, milk, pasta, and white bread for this same reason.

Of course, not every acidic food is bad for you (i.e. fruit!). Eating a well-balanced diet is key to solid nutrition and a smoothly running digestive system. Choosing an acidic or alkaline food won’t necessarily “change” your body.

Is finding a pH “balance” all hype—or good for your health?

Even though an alkaline diet is seemingly anti-acid, some food-related acids are actually pretty essential to health, like amino acids and fatty acids. The success of eating alkaline is two-fold. It’s healthy due to the emphasis on real, unprocessed foods, and those foods are already full of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. And that latter fact has nothing to do with pH levels.

This is where proponents of eating alkaline emphasize prevention. They claim an alkaline diet can protect people against chronic conditions like osteoporosis, even though there’s no evidence-based direct link between bone density and dietary acid. On the contrary, studies say high-protein foods, which are acid-forming, are linked to healthier bones.

Dr. Wald puts it this way: if your goal is to increase pH, it’s probably due to an already existing condition related to abnormal kidney function or compromised respiratory systems. Those issues are actually related to keeping the pH level of your blood in a safe zone, which isn’t impacted by diet.

Still, Pierson correctly calls out a byproduct of modern reality: the fact that many of us are subject many elements that push toward an acidic environment. Think a sedentary lifestyle, excess hormones and chemicals in food, exposure to chemicals and pollution, and an abundance of processed foods and animal fat consumption. So if an alkaline diet guides people toward fruits, vegetables, and less acidic proteins or fats then it certainly does no harm.

“My advice would be to lower your intake of highly acid-forming and processed foods, stock up on green vegetables, fruits, and legumes, drink plenty of water, and reduce your stress levels or practice stress management techniques,” says Pierson. “All of these combined will help you to reach an optimal pH balance.”

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