Monday, December 22, 2008

Is an Alkaline Diet the Holy Grail?

pH and Dietary Direction
(adapted from a paper I wrote for my one of my courses)

Dietary direction is a term used to describe the cumulative effect of the individual foods that we consume. Each food potentially has a different result on the pH of the body--they are said to be "acid-forming" or "alkaline-forming." This may be different from the pH the actual food has: lemons are an acidic food that have an alkalizing effect on the body. If a food has an alkaline effect, it is generally considered catabolic or cleansing. These are usually plant foods and most ferments, though a few animal foods are in the low alkaline-forming category (e.g. duck and quail eggs). A food that has an acid effect is ususally considered anabolic or building in the body. These are often animal foods, but include quite a few plant foods, especially grains, legumes and most oils. Some foods tend to be neutral, or balancing in effect. Most refined foods are usually considered to be acidic, such as white bread, noodles, sugar, cereal, refined fruit juice. In general these foods are not anabolic, but catabolic--yet not in the sense of being cleansing foods either. They are destructive, rather than "breaking down in order to clean house."

To determine the dietary direction of a meal or overall diet one would assess each food and add the effects of the group. For this to be representative for one's diet over time it would be best to look at at least a week of normal eating (in other words, not during unusual times such as travel or holidays). One way to describe the general pH balance is to look as the balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat. In general, the alkaline foods are carbohydrates and acidic foods are protein and fat, but in reality there is more nuance, as looking at a detailed chart would show. For example, if most of one's carbohydrates came from grains, that would skew the grouping scheme below, because the alkaline category must assume that the carbs are mostly from fruits and vegetables to consider carbs predominantly alkaline. If we instead look at each food's pH impact in the body, we might come to different conclusions.

An approximate guideline (given the above caveat) for each category:
Alkaline: 70-80% Carb 10-15% protein 10-15% fat
Neutral: 50-60% Carb 20-25% protein 20-25% fat
Acid: 40% carb 30% protein 30% fat

Sample Day:
Breakfast: Tea, eggs, butter, meatloaf, pickled beets,
Lunch: coconut crackers, avocado, pumpkin & squash seeds, tea, yogurt,
Dinner: soup made with kale, onion, carrots, stock, sausage
To see the chart I used to analyze this day's ph, see here.

My sample day tended tended to acidic or anabolic if we use this last rubric. I clearly take the majority of my calories from fats and proteins. This is by design, as I am working on undoing years of health issues including hypoglycemia, allergies and sinus troubles. The anabolic--or building--direction of my diet is healing and soothing to my particular issues.

I was not raised eating this way, though I was raised on a whole foods diet. Rather, my family was Macrobiotic for many years, eating a primarily grain-based diet. I eventually became a professional baker and pastry chef, again eating a predominantly grain-based (and mostly vegetarian) diet for many years. I did not know it at the time, but this diet did not suit my constitution, as evidenced by my illnesses and added digestive troubles. Still, I did not see the connection until one of my children had such severe digestive problems (ulcerative colitis) that I was driven to find a solution and stumbled upon the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. Using the SCD (and now the GAPS refinements of it) I found the key to my former ill health--a diet full of starches and sugars, albeit "natural" ones.

On the other hand, if we look at the individual foods I consumed as compared to the food pH chart prepared by Russell Jaffe, we can see a different picture. According to this understanding, my breakfast was Low Acid in effect, my lunch was Low Alkaline and my dinner Neutral, giving an overall neutral effect. I find this very interesting, because I am in what is essentially a maintenance phase of my diet, not really looking to build or cleanse at the moment. So the neutrality of the dietary direction is fitting. Though this is anecdotal, I have noticed on some of the GAPS discussion boards that the mothers describe their children eating massive amounts of meat, broth and fat at the beginning stage (when the healing is most critical and active) and tapering off to a more neutral diet, including many vegetables, which the children would never have eaten before taking starches out of the diet. In other words, the diets become more balanced, more neutral, as healing occurs. And this is children essentially selecting their own foods out of what is offered.

It is definitely important to understand the balance in one's diet (or the lack of it). This can be used to guide the food selections as circumstances change. It is also important to know what definitions we are using to describe our subject, and to use our own experience and intuition to guide our choices. I can see that it would be very easy to choose a path "by the numbers" and stick rigidly to it, either because it has been recommended by someone we trust or because it sounds compelling. There is a lot of information (and misinformation) available on the Internet about "cleansing" diets and regimes and some people choose them the way others choose antibacterial soap, assuming that we are all dirty and need to be cleaned up. The reality is again more nuanced: we are all different and have subtly different dietary needs. This is the basis of the concept of "biochemical individuality." We must use guidelines such as the ideas of pH balance in foods and food effects with the proverbial "grain of salt." This concept can be part of a larger set of principles by which we guide our "dietary direction."

Bartholomy, Paula. Class Lecture. MHNE 606. Hawthorn University. 2008.
Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. Washington, DC: New Trends, 2005.
Haas, Elson. Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Berkley: Celestial Arts, 1992.
Murray, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods.
Jaffe, Russell. "Food & Chemical Effects on Acid / Alkaline Body Chemical Balance." Sterling, VA: Health Studies Collegium, 2007.
Worthington, Virginia. "Acid-Alkaline Balance and Your Health". Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation: 1997-2008. <>

Addendum: I came across this on one of my discussion groups, and am including it because it speaks to the controversy mentioned above (if it is yours, I apologize for not giving you attribution--let me know who you are and I will gladly):

"The "acidic ash" question is really interesting and I've never seen a good answer to it. The people who publish the "acidic" tables, it seems, rate foods
based on how they affect their urine. If their urine goes acidic, then the food is assumed to be "acidic".

Now, this COULD be because the food has "ash" products that tend toward acidic. Like phosphates. And the "alkaline" foods tend to be ones with calcium
or potassium. By that standard, kraut is alkaline.

But fermented foods also have lactic acid, and one of the two isomers of lactic acid is not usually used by the body: it is excreted. In fact, if a huge
amount of it is ingested (or produced in the body, as it sometimes is in cows) it can be toxic. Usually though, it doesn't cause any harm, and lacto-fermented
foods are associated with better healthy.

Ingesting lactic acid though, will tend to make your urine acidic. It won't make your blood acidic unless you have major health problems.

So, lacking a good definition of what "acidic" and "alkaline" foods really are (if someone can enlighten me I'd love to hear such a definition), I came up with my own: "alkaline" foods are ones with calcium, potassium, or magnesium, which we tend not to get enough of. Eating greens and
veggies and fruits gives you these. Eating starches and sugars tend to cause bacterial/yeast overgrowth, which is bad (and can cause acid production
in the gut, which might be why those foods got labelled "acidic" .. but also whole grains can block absorption of cal/mag)."

Posted via email from justine's posterous

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