Are you feeling run-down, achy, or generally "off"? Perhaps your body's pH is out of whack. An emerging (and controversial) dietary theory called pH balancing suggests that eating foods to lessen your body's overall acidity—in particular, consuming alkalinizing plant foods—may improve your health.
Measuring pH on a scale of 0 to 14 assesses how acidic or basic (alkaline) something is; less than 7.0 is acidic, exactly 7.0 is neutral, and greater than 7.0 is alkaline. Your body's cleanup crew—the lungs and kidneys—help keep the pH ranges of your bodily fluids (blood, urine, saliva, and more) in balance. But some experts theorize that these buffering systems may need a little help when too many acid by-products, from foods in particular, create subtle pH shifts through-out your body.
"The typical American diet of simple carbs, heavy meats, and processed foods generates a lot of acid residues, which the tissues store as a means of buffering," says Elson M. Haas, MD, an integrated-medicine physician in San Rafael, California, and author of The New Detox Diet (Celestial Arts, 2004). "Acid diets lead to acidic tissues, and then inflammation and degenerative diseases," such as osteoporosis, diabetes, and even cancer. With a pH-balanced diet, he says, "bodies are like cars that are using cleaner fuel, which creates fewer harmful by-products."
Tame the acid
Start with a simple home test to determine your pH, recommends Mark Hyman, MD, of Lenox, Massachusetts, author of Ultra-metabolism (Scribner, 2006) and The UltraSimple Diet (Pocket, 2007). Simply buy pH paper—it's inexpensive and often available at natural products stores—and check your first urine of the morning. Although some people consider 7.3 the ideal number, experts agree that a range between 6.5 and 7.5 is more realistic. If you test lower than 6.5, consider adding more alkalinizing foods to your meals.
First, plant foods should comprise 60 percent to 70 percent of your total diet, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds—plus lots of water. "Plant-based foods have more alkalinizing minerals, such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium," Haas says. "Even though fruits like lemons and oranges contain mild acids, they are also rich in alkalinizing minerals, so they have an alkalinizing effect on the body." His favorites for pH balancing are greens and fresh vegetable juices made with celery, carrots, beets, and chard.
Next, avoid or greatly reduce your intake of animal-based and processed foods, including eggs, dairy, meats, sugar, and white flour, which contain more acidifying properties, according to Hyman. These all-too-common dietary staples contribute to imbalances and inflammatory disease, he says. "Switching to a healthier plant-based diet enables us to eat the way we were designed to, restoring balance to our pH."
What to expect
Although many advantages of pH balancing remain anecdotal, at least one benefit is clear: stronger bones. That's because excess acid leaches calcium—a natural buffer—from the skeleton. This could explain why people who drink a lot of acidic cola tend to have lower bone mineral density values, while those with diets rich in alkalinizing fruits and vegetables tend to have higher bone density (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006, vol. 83, no. 6; vol. 84, no. 4).
By reducing acidity, you'll likely experience other benefits, too. "pH-balanced eating can help with all acid-based inflammatory and degenerative conditions, such as arthritis, back pain, headaches, allergies, and congestion," says Haas. When his clients undertake this diet trend, their blood pressure and cholesterol counts often decrease, they have less painful inflammation in their joints, they sleep better, and they're less stressed and feel more energized. "In fact, I believe that pH balancing is one of the keys to the future of medicine," says Haas.
Adina Licht, MS, is a food and nutrition scientist who cooks with lots of fruits and vegetables in Santa Cruz, California.