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By Nadia Marshall
Alkaline diets are all the rage. But why? What are they all about? Is it a valid approach or is it all hogwash? In this article I’ll explore the theory behind this approach to eating, discuss the pros and cons and will compare it with an Ayurvedic approach to eating….
How is acid/alkaline measured?
Most of you will know this but for those who have forgotten, the acid/alkaline measure is known as pH and it is a scale from 0-14, with 7 being neutral. Anything above 7 is alkaline and anything below 7 is acidic. A change of 1 unit on a pH scale represents a 10 fold change in the pH, so water with a pH of 6 is 10 times more acidic than water with a pH of 7, and water with a pH of 5 is 100 times more acidic than water with a pH of 7.
All foods/drinks that we consume, after being digested, absorbed and metabolised, release either an acid or an alkaline base into the blood. Our blood is slightly alkaline, with a normal pH level of between 7.35 and 7.45 and our internal homeostatic mechanisms in the body require that our blood is strictly maintained at this level. When we eat an excess of acid-producing foods, and in turn release an excess of acid base into the blood, our bodies need to balance out the pH by drawing on alkaline nutrients in the body to digest and excrete the acid and restore the equilibrium.
These alkaline nutrients are incredibly important in a variety of other physiological processes so leeching them out of the body in order to constantly balance the pH of our blood is believed to make people prone to illness. In this way, when we eat too much acid-forming food it is not so much that we become acidic, it is more that we suffer from alkaline-mineral depletion!
What makes a food acid or alkaline?
‘Acidic food’ is food that has higher quantities of acid-forming minerals such as chlorine, sulphur, nitrogen and phosphorous. ‘Alkaline food’, on the other hand, is food that has higher quantities of alkaline-forming minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, manganese and iron. To work out the pH of a food, you basically burn the food, dissolve the ash in pH-neutral water and then test it with pH test papers or a test meter machine.
Strong vs Weak Acids
Some acid-forming minerals form weak acids while others form strong acids. Weak acids like acetic acid in vinegar and the acids in most fruits and vegetables combine with water and are converted into carbonic acid which is broken down into carbon dioxide and excreted through the breath. These foods also contain a balance of alkaline minerals so in the end, although they are considered acidic when they go in, they actually contribute alkaline-minerals to the body.
Sulphur, phosphorous and nitrous, on the other hand, form strong acids - sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid and nitric acid. In order to be digested and excreted they need to pair up with sodium, potassium, magnesium or calcium to form neutral salts (like calcium sulfate) that can be safely excreted via the kidneys. Your body will leech these minerals directly from your bones, if it has to, in order to digest these acidic foods.
What foods produce strong acids?
Wouldn’t you know it… the foods that release the most sulphur, phosphorous and nitrous into the body are… high-protein foods, that is, meat - especially beef. When proteins break down, they produce these three acids.
We obviously need protein, but our body is designed to digest about 40gms of protein a day – maybe more if we are an athlete or have a very physical job. Western diets contains as much as 200gms of protein a day. There are many studies from around the world showing the more protein a society eats, the higher their rate of osteoporosis.
Other strongly acid-forming substances include pharmaceutical drugs, artificial sweeteners, processed food made from refined flour and refined sugar, soft-drinks, coffee, alcohol and processed hard cheeses.
The importance of alkaline minerals
The role of alkaline minerals in the body and their interaction within each of these roles is incredibly complex. For example, I’ll give a quick rundown on their involvement in our response to stress. When we are in a stressed state, we have a low magnesium to calcium ratio in our cells and when we are in a relaxed state, we have a high magnesium to calcium ratio. So, if our magnesium becomes too depleted, we can actually induce a permanently stressed state in our bodies! And stress actually depletes magnesium further. If magnesium is depleted, calcium and potassium also become depleted because magnesium is required for their absorption. Told you it was complicated!
So, I won’t go into much more detail. But, to paint a basic picture, alkaline minerals are required for nerve transmission, muscle contraction (including our heart muscle), maintaining healthy blood pressure, maintaining the normal clotting of blood, regulating enzyme activity and enabling the distribution of oxygen and energy to our cells. They are also necessary for all of our metabolic functions - from our digestion through to our cellular metabolism. So basically, if these minerals are really depleted, we won’t be in a good way for long!
What happens to excess acid?
Excessive acid from the blood is mostly secreted but when it all gets too much, it has to be stored in the body, waiting in line until it can be secreted by the kidneys. Where is it stored? In our connective tissue, including our muscles, tendons and ligaments. The collagen fibres of the body are basically acid storage units. If too much acids gets stored in these tissues, inflammation and pain can result leading to conditions like arthritis or fibromyalgia.
If there is excess acid in the stomach in the form of hydrochloric acid, it is actually stored in the lining of the stomach where it can lead to the formation of stomach ulcers.
How do you know if you're 'too acidic'?
One way to test for acidity is a saliva test. If you can get your hands on some pH test paper, you can do this yourself. Wait at least 2 hours after a meal. Fill your mouth with saliva then spit it out. Repeat this three times to ensure your saliva is clean then put some saliva onto the pH paper. You can also carry out a urine test. Collect some urine from your second excretion for the day (your first excretion should be acidic because you are eliminating excess acid from the previous day of digesting).
But before you start testing yourself, maybe look out for some of the following symptoms that proponents of this approach talk about. They include: low energy; joint pain; muscle pain or cramps; spasming muscles; gastritis or acid indigestion; headaches; excess mucous production; frequent colds, flus, and infections; irritability, stress or anxiety; weak nails, dry hair and dry skin to name a few.
The limitations of this approach
To me, this approach makes a lot of sense. But here are some limitations that I came up with....
The main problem with the approach is it is reductionist rather than holistic. It is only considering one aspect of our food. But we all know food is made up of a whole lot more than alkaline or acidic minerals. What about all the other constituents of the food, their interaction with each other, their interaction with other foods and their interaction with our body? Because it is reductionist, if you start cross-referencing it with low GI diets or other reductionist approaches, things can get confusing, quickly.
Another problem with the Alkaline diet approach is, like most things, it can be over-simplified and taken to extremes. People often look at an acid/alkaline food chart and start to think they should stop eating millet and only eat watermelons. Ridiculous!
I’d also question the validity of the pH testing - that is, burning the food and then just testing the pH of the ash. Why? Because food isn’t burnt to ash in our stomach so it isn’t an entirely accurate representation of the pH balance of things. But… I couldn’t come up with a better idea, apart from using this fake human stomach! Also, practically every single food chart I looked at on the internet had slightly different results, even ones on the same website.
It occurred to me that none of the sites I looked at included any discussion on the importance of acid-forming minerals to the body. You get the impression they are entirely harmful… the bad guys! But, when you look at these minerals separately, each of them has a role in the body as well. For example, phosphorous combines with fat to form phospholipids… which make up all of our cell walls and is an essential ingredient in our DNA, RNA and ATP (which provides us with ALL of our energy)! So, as usual it is a matter of balance
Also, this approach only tends to look at the acids going in through our food. It doesn’t mention the acids created by the body internally (through intestinal fermentation – caused by poor digestion or through a malfunction in the amount of hydrochloric secreted into the stomach). If you're secreting too much acid in your stomach, this will effect the pH of the liquid moving into your duodenum as well. And, if you’re not digesting your alkaline foods properly because your digestion is compromised, they may very well be fermenting in your gut anyway and growing a lovely crop of acid-forming bacteria!
This approach also doesn’t take into account the other main contributing factors to increasing the acidity of the body which are... excessive stress and breathing! We've already mentioned the stress connection but what about the breathing? Basically, the more slowly and deeply we breath, the more alkaline our blood will be... and the more quickly and shallowly (is that a word?) we breath, the more acidic our blood will be - it's an oxygen/ carbon dioxide thing.
Finally, I believe this approach may tend to foster obsessions and unnecessary fanaticism. But this is true of almost any approach that breaks our food down into lists and numbers. You might have experienced this yourself - when you look at your food purely as a number on a chart, you stop seeing it as a part of creation with a vast array of unique qualities that behave entirely differently depending on how they are prepared and how/when they are eaten...
The benefits of this approach
If you take the reasoning behind the approach into account… and then promptly forget most of the details, hopefully what will remain is an understanding that in order to be more alkaline and less acidic you should:
1.eat less meat and more plants (veggies, fruits, legumes, pulses)
2.eat less processed food (especially white sugar and flour) and more whole-foods and home-cooked food
3.stop drinking soft drinks, including diet ones, and
4.drink less alcohol and coffee.
I believe these 4 simple guidelines will stand anyone in good stead for their long-lasting health and happiness... and they are probably the 4 main reasons why people feel so much better and healthier on an alkaline diet!
How does an Ayurvedic diet compare?
It is difficult to define what an Ayurvedic diet entails exactly, as it is different for every person. But the starting point of any Ayurvedic diet is to eat fresh, wholefood that is preferably organic. So, straight away you’re avoiding refined, processed foods and drinks and eating foods with a higher mineral content.
The next step is to eat a predominantly vegetarian diet with an abundance of veggies (especially of the green leafy kind), so you immediately avoid the high-protein issue and introduce an abundance of alkaline-minerals through your veggies. You also tend to eat sweet fruit (not sour), which are more alkaline.
After that, you’re advised to avoid eating excessively heating or over-stimulating foods and drinks like coffee, alcohol, chilli and fermented foods (and meat falls into this category too). Instead, you tend to drink hot water with lemon and/or ginger and other herbal teas – all alkaline.
You’re advised to avoid hard cheeses which are on the extremely-acid forming lists and although milk is advised in moderation, it is recommended that you source raw milk (if at all possible) and prepare it with spices – which makes it an more neutral food. If you have difficulty digesting milk, Ayurveda recommends goat milk as a substitute which is slightly alkalizing.
When you use sugar, you try to use unrefined sugar such as jaggery which has a high alkaline mineral content or honey which is also alkaline. And in terms of salt, sea or rock salt is advised – both extremely alkaline.
You cook with a variety of herbs and spices, most of which have a high content of alkalizing minerals including turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, parsley, oregano, rosemary and thyme. And, you tend to eat an abundance of sesame seeds, raisins and almonds which are also alkaline.
So even the most basic of Ayurvedic diets is naturally alkaline. And, if for example you're put on a moong daal and veggie fast for a particular condition, this diet is completely alkaline.
But.... apart from the above, it is difficult to draw detailed parallels between an Ayurvedic diet and the Alkaline approach.
Ayurveda has a very in-depth way of looking at food. It sees foods as having three levels of effect on the body:
1) RASA - an initial effect through the taste (Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter or Astringent or a combination)
2)VIRYA – an overall thermal effect on the body (Heating or Cooling)
3)VIPAKA - a post-digestive taste (Sweet, Sour or Pungent)
The Rasa, Virya and Vipaka of a food provides an exact indication of what effect a food will have on your body down to which elements it will increase or decrease. Ayurveda also occasionally describes a PRABHAV or ‘special effect’ that a particular food can have on the body – for example, ghee has a prabhav of kindling the digestive fire. And finally, foods are categorised as either Sattvic, Rajasic or Tamasic which reveals the effect they have on your mind – making it either more peaceful, agitated or dull.
I assumed that Acidic foods would correlate with Sour or Heating foods. They often did, but not always. I also assumed that Alkaline foods would correlate with Cooling foods or foods with a Sweet Vipaka. Again, they often did, but not always.
The only consistent correlation I could come up with is that all the foods on the ‘extremely-acidic’ list are, in Ayurveda, considered either Tamasic (dull) or Rajasic (agitating) - both of which lead to stress in the body/mind. Interesting!
So although Ayurveda has a very different approach to viewing food, when you consider an Ayurvedic diet overall, it is actually very alkaline. But here’s the twist… if you looked at an Alkaline diet, it wouldn’t necessarily be Ayurvedic - because it wouldn't take into account the methods of preparation and food combining designed to make food more digestible.
I believe the Alkaline diet approach to eating is a very valid (and fascinating) one but it is not without its limitations. The good news is, Ayurveda, as a complete, holistic science naturally encompass this knowledge in its approach to food and eating.
Ayurveda also teaches a variety of practices to reduce stress in our lives and improve our breathing. I couldn’t find any studies on it, but I imagine that stress and shallow breathing are even bigger contributors to the leeching of our alkaline minerals – given we do these all the time, not just 3 times a day!
So… I say, if the whole diet thing overwhelms you or you're prone to intensity, don’t stress! Inhale… exhale… eat some more home-cooked vegetarian meals (with spices)… stop drinking soft drinks, cut down on your alcohol and coffee.... and don’t worry too much about it!
**Please Note - if you're suffering from any serious symptoms of indigestion or other pathologies, we'd advise you to go and see an Ayurvedic Practitioner for specific dietary advice individualized for your state of imbalance.**
Agni - the digestive fire.
Ama or Aama - undigested food waste, toxins.
Ojas- the foundation of our immune system and longevity.
Dhatus - the tissues of the body.
Srotas - the channels of the body.
Vata - the air/ether
intelligence in the body.
Pitta- the fire/water
intelligence in the body.
Kapha- the water/earth intelligence in the body.
Sattva- the quality of purity, intelligence, peace and love.
Rajas- the quality of
turbulence and activity.
Tamas- the quality of
dullness, darkness and inertia.
Rasa - the taste of a food (Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, Astringent)
Virya - second level of digestion (either Heating or Cooling)
Vipaka - third level of digestion, the deep taste of a food (can be Sweet, Sour or Pungent)
Prabhav - the 'special effect' of a food or herb/spice
Rasa - also the name for plasma tissue
Rakta - blood tissue
Mamsa - muscle tissue
Meda - fat tissue
Asthi - bone tissue
Majja - nerve & bone marrow tissue
Shukra - sexual reproductive tissue