If you’ve heard of the alkaline diet but you’re not really sure what it is or how exactly it works, you’re definitely not alone.
When we chatted with Katie Goldberg, M.C.N., R.D.N., L.D.N., a Chicago-based registered dietician specializing in weight management, diabetes, postpartum nutrition and wellness, she explained that the logistics of this diet trend can actually be quite confusing.
Below, Goldberg helps us answer a few basic questions about the alkaline diet and explains everything you need to know, including how to determine if it’s right for you.
The Active Times: What are the main characteristics of the alkaline diet — what does it entail, are there any foods that are off limits, etc.?
Goldberg: The alkaline diet is based on the fact that all foods we digest will release an ash into the blood and tissues of our body. Depending on the mineral compounds the foods contain, that ash can be either acidic or alkaline on the pH scale.
A quick chemistry refresher: all things fall somewhere on the pH scale from 0 (completely acidic) to 14 (completely alkaline), while a pH of 7 is considered neutral. Your body maintains our blood at a pH between 7.35 and 7.45.
Different digestive enzymes ranging in pH from about 1.0 to 10.0 will interact with your food to help digest it. The pH of your urine will change based on whether you need to flush out extra acid or base to maintain the pH of your blood.
Foods that produce an alkaline ash include fruits and vegetables, soy, and many nuts, seeds and legumes. Foods that produce an acidic ash (and should be avoided) include dairy, eggs, meat, most grains, processed foods, sugar, alcohol and caffeine.
What’s the main purpose of the alkaline diet and what are the pros and cons involved with following it?
Proponents of the diet claim that an alkaline ash can help you lose weight, and prevent chronic diseases like arthritis and cancer.
• The benefits of a plant-based diet are many, from lower cholesterol levels to less risk of obesity and many cancers.
• You may lose weight if you're reducing your portion sizes, and are filling up on low-calorie, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. Research is in favor of the plant-based diets for weight maintenance. There is no nutritional reason to not follow this diet long-term, which means the weight loss has the potential to be sustained.
• The premise of the diet doesn't factor in portion size, which means that it is not inherently a diet of restriction and deprivation. When people feel satisfied and get to enjoy their food, weight loss is more sustainable.
• Research is limited — it is unclear whether the rationale behind the diet is scientific or not.
• The diet is more of a theory than a program, which means there aren't clear guidelines to how to play it out. Some proponents encourage an 80/20 mix (alkaline/acid), while others allow a 60/40 ratio. Portion sizes aren't consistent, if they are even mentioned.
• It can get confusing. There are many different alkaline/acid charts floating around the internet, and they aren't consistent. Some have the same food listed in both categories. Some break down the categories even further into low, moderate or extreme, further complicating the situation.
• The list of what is acid and what is alkaline isn't necessarily intuitive. For instance, lemons and limes fall on the alkaline side in the diet. Also, some very nutritious foods — which seem unnecessary to restrict — like blueberries, pomegranates, chickpeas and walnuts are considered acidic and to be limited.
• Also, you may not lose weight. Just like "eating clean", "going Paleo", or choosing a vegan diet doesn't guarantee that you will lose weight, the Alkaline diet doesn't guarantee anything. For many people, cutting out some of the more popular acidic foods (chocolate, cheese, caffeine, sugar) isn't sustainable for the long haul. This could impact potential weight loss, as well.
• You may be at risk for nutritional deficiencies. Without some intention in planning, followers are at risk for deficiencies in iron, vitamin D, calcium and vitamin B12.
Are there any weight loss benefits associated with the alkaline diet? And if so, could those benefits help someone sustain weight loss long-term?
The diet may help you lose weight — but it may not be why you think it will. The research is limited and inconclusive about the effectiveness of the diet in weight loss and disease prevention. Specifically, the validity of the acid versus alkaline argument is in question. However, there are many health benefits to a diet that is rich in plants, especially fruits and vegetables.
Despite the fact that the research may not fully support this diet, it encourages things that many nutrition professionals are already recommending. Reduce your intake of processed foods, reduce sugar and alcohol, and increase fruits and vegetables. It doesn't matter what you call it, those will always be good recommendations for everyone.
Is there anyone in particular who might benefit most from the alkaline diet?
Those who might benefit the most from this diet are people who have a heavy reliance on processed foods, and need a way to jump start a healthier diet. Additionally, for people prone to kidney stones, this is a good plan to follow.
Is there anyone who should not follow the alkaline diet?
For those who are already enjoying a diet based on a variety of whole foods, there doesn't seem to be any clear advantage to strictly following the rules of alkaline. Also, when making the switch to a diet that is high in fiber (especially compared to your previous diet), individuals should be aware of potential side effects. Dramatically increasing the amount of fiber you eat can cause cramping, bloating or other unwelcome GI distress. Increasing your fiber intake gradually, and drinking plenty of water will alleviate that problem.