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A doctor calls BS on the pH diet

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

How does the science behind the Alkaline Diet work? Not well

Talk of "alkalizing" and "acidifying" foods is all over Facebook and Instagram, usually under a picture of a gorgeous green smoothie and a glowing recommendation of how this one little change cleared up all their health problems from acne to obesity. It's enough to make anyone want to try it out. But is there any truth to this trendy diet? And can it give you the healthy results you're looking for?

The Alkaline Diet is everywhere. You've probably seen the lists of alkaline and acidic foods, alkalizing recipes, and even super-pricey alkaline water—all with the promise of fixing your body's blood pH balance and bringing your health back in line. But is it worth changing your diet or shelling out the extra bucks for these specialty items?

More: 10 food myths everyone thinks are true (but aren't)

First, the science: The pH scale is a scale used to measure the acid or alkaline (basic) content of an aqueous solution. It goes from 1 to 14, with 1 being the most acidic (think battery acid) and 14 being the most basic (like bleach or oven cleaner). Straight up water is "neutral" at 7. So it makes sense then that we'd want our blood to be somewhere in the middle. No one wants battery acid or bleach coursing through their veins.

And good news, healthy human blood averages between 7.35 and 7.45 pH.

The question then is whether or not the food we eat can alter those levels and if it would make us healthier to do so. Proponents of the diet say that the standard American diet is seriously acidic and lowers our natural pH to unhealthy levels, thereby poisoning us while reducing our body's ability to detoxify our blood.

Not true, says John Jalas, M.D., Ph.D., a pathologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. "You simply cannot alter your blood pH by what you eat or drink," he says.

He explains that the body is a control freak about maintaining its pH balance within that very narrow window. "And if it gets out of that range you're sick — and not just under the weather, but so sick you are in the hospital," he says. For comparison, he says that metabolic acidosis, a complication of uncontrolled diabetes, can drop a person's pH to around 7, putting them into a diabetic coma and possibly even killing them.

So it's probably a good thing we can't control our own pH levels with what we eat. Instead our carbon dioxide exchange system and our kidneys do an excellent job regulating the acidity of our blood. He adds that there's also no scientific evidence that acid in the body leads to cancer, another common claim of the diet.

But that doesn't mean the diet is all bad, Jalas says. The science behind it doesn't hold up but he says the lists of alkalizing and acidifying foods translate quite well to the lists of healthy and unhealthy foods that doctors have been telling us about forever. For instance, followers of the diet are told to avoid red meat, alcohol, sugar while stocking up on fruits, veggies, nuts and spices.

More: Health benefits of alkaline foods

"Limiting these things is good advice for everyone, honestly," Jalas says. He adds that he wouldn't say never to eat them — "It's a case of everything in moderation" — but we could all do better to eat more fresh produce. So if calling it by a fancy name helps people like the idea of ditching junk and embracing healthy food better, he doesn't see a problem with that.

And besides, those green smoothies really do look amazing, regardless of their acid or alkaline content.

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