The alkaline diet sounds like something out of a chemistry lab; the idea behind it is different foods can affect the body’s pH levels. Proponents believe eating mostly alkaline, or low-acidity, foods can be helpful for treating or preventing disease, aiding weight loss and promoting overall health. However, while you may experience benefits on this diet, the reasons for those changes aren’t necessarily what diet advocates would have you believe.
Here, 10 things to know before you try it:
When your body breaks down food, some foods create more acidic compounds, while others create more alkaline compounds. “The alkaline diet is based on the ill-conceived notion that you can alter the pH of your blood by changing your food choices,” explains Julie Upton registered dietitian and co-founder of Appetite for Health. In turn, this supposedly benefits your health. “The problem is, the body tightly regulates the pH of blood on its own, and what you eat doesn’t impact those mechanisms to regulate pH.”
What’s more, “pH in the human body not only varies greatly (i.e., blood is more alkaline, while stomach acid is more acidic), but there also are homeostatic mechanisms in place to tightly control the variability of pH. In other words, maintaining optimal pH levels is a function the body performs on its own in a healthy state,” says Cara Harbstreet, a registered dietitian at Street Smart Nutrition.
Some advocates claim the alkaline diet is good for bone health because if your body is acidic, it will draw alkalizing minerals from your bones. Research doesn’t find the diet supports bone health.
Others say the diet has cancer-fighting benefits because cancer cells appear to thrive in acidic environments. But again, the research doesn’t indicate the diet prevents or treats cancer. “There are some pretty sensational claims about the alkaline diet. However, none of these claims for health have been supported by research,” says Harbstreet.
The alkaline diet guidelines are not outlandish. In fact, the diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes — that is, wholesome, nutritious foods we know are good for us. “The benefits people find are likely to due to the fact they are eating more plant-based foods and less processed foods,” says Upton.
If you have any health condition and decide to change your diet — and especially if you plan to change your diet in an effort to treat your condition — talk to your doctor first to avoid any potential risks or complications. “The greatest risk with any diet is falling into the belief that it is a cure-all for disease,” says Harbstreet.
Like other trendy diets, the alkaline diet could disguise disordered eating patterns or habits, especially those that mimic orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. “Eating healthful foods under the premise of a diet such as this is problematic for a normal and balanced relationship with food. Because of the orthorexic nature of this eating pattern, I caution against it because it has the potential to compound other negative dieting behaviors and potentially lead to the development of a more severe eating disorder,” says Harbstreet.
If you love coffee or the occasional glass of wine, this might not be the diet for you. These substances are off-limits.
Given that the diet discourages packaged foods, you’re likely going to need to whip up meals yourself and learn how to add flavor to basic ingredients like chicken and veggies. And of course, cooking means making the time to grocery shop and meal prep.
Not all fruit and vegetables are created equal in the eyes of alkaline advocates, so it can take some time to memorize whether you should have Brussels sprouts (which they say are more acidic and a no-go) or green asparagus (which they say is alkaline and thus allowed).
Search around for alkaline diet guidelines, and you’ll find different sources say to limit things like dairy and eggs, while others say they’re fine, as long as the dairy is full-fat.
What kind of oil are the vegetables cooked in? Can I get quinoa instead of white rice? Can you make this without cheese? Eating out on the alkaline diet isn’t impossible, but you may have to ask a lot of questions and make special requests.
Although the alkaline diet emphasizes healthy, whole foods, the science doesn’t back the purported claims. “As a registered dietitian and advocate for intuitive eating, I don’t recommend this diet. There simply is not sufficient evidence to support its use for the health claims that surround it,” says Harbstreet. “Plus, as with any overly strict diet, there’s the potential it could lead to the development of disordered eating habits.” Rather than placing any food off-limits, focus on getting plenty of lean protein, healthy fats, whole grains and veggies and eating colorful meals.