Striving for an alkaline based body has always been a goal of many well-meaning health advocates. It is preached that having an alkaline body will do everything from preventing cancer to giving you boundless energy. But is this health goal realistic, and does it do what it claims to do?
Every cell of the body functions optimally within a certain pH range (pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the body). In different cells, this optimal range is different, however, the net pH of the body has to remain tightly regulated.
Our body needs both acidity and alkalinity.
We need our digestive system to be acidic so that it can metabolise and digest food. An acidic stomach is one of our first lines of defence against pathogens that we are exposed to. Most pathogens can’t survive the acidic environment of the stomach and therefore never make it any further into the body. Whilst, in contrast, we need our blood to be a more neutral pH of around 7.4, if this varies too much it can be fatal.
The problem with today’s standard diet is that it produces a condition called “low grade chronic metabolic acidosis”. Studies have shown that up to one in four people suffers from this. Whilst you may not notice the effects of this condition, your cells do, and it will catch up with you, especially as you get older. Our bodies understand how vitally important it is to maintain a proper pH level, so it does everything that it can to maintain this. Your body will pull minerals such as calcium out of storage (e.g. bone) to try and balance out the acidity. A high acidic load contributes to inflammation within the body and we are aware that inflammation is one of the root causes of chronic disease. A high acidic load also puts extra stress on our cells as they scramble to maintain balance. It is this extra stress that simply depletes our vitality and energy.
Most people wanting to follow an alkaline diet come across acid-alkaline charts that basically have animal products in the acidic section and plant-based foods in the alkaline section. These charts have been made from data that was collected when the food has been burnt and its ash has been analysed for its pH level.
However, this is far too simplistic to relate the pH of the foods to the pH effect that it has within the body. What it doesn’t take into account is the bioavailability of nutrients and other cofactors of metabolism that would have a much greater and realistic impact on our pH levels.
This is where the PRAL (potential renal acidic load) chart comes into it. Researches (Remer and Manz) have developed a much more accurate way to measure the pH load of a food during metabolism, and as the chart shows, it not just plant vs animal. You can download the chart here. For example, a traditional acid-alkaline chart shows that brown rice is alkaline and white rice is acidic, whereas the PRAL chart shows that brown rice (12.5) is much more acidic than white rice (1.7) once metabolised in the body.
The PRAL chart assesses the amounts of alkalising minerals Magnesium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Calcium and the protein content of each food. It is considered by research scientists the most accurate way of measuring the dietary acid load on the body. The reason animal products are classed as acid forming is due to the sulphur containing amino acids that are naturally found within the protein portion of meat. These types of amino acids are naturally lower in plant-based foods, whilst the plant-based foods are also higher in alkaline elements as listed above.
How do you know if you are acidic?
Firstly look at what you are eating. Are you eating foods from the PRAL chart that have a high acidic load? Are you eating enough alkaline foods to balance out the acidic foods? In addition to this blood tests can show us if your body is struggling to maintain it’s optimal pH.
How to eat
It all comes back to what I call the PEGAN (paleo+vegan) style of eating.
- Make your meals mainly plant-based with loads of fresh, seasonal vegetables
- Moderate amount of fruit (1-2 per day)
- Healthy fats (olive, coconut, avocado, ghee, nuts)
- Small amounts of organic pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy (1-2 palm-sized portion most days)
- Small amounts of gluten-free grains, lentils and beans (1/2-1 cup on most days)
- Fermented foods (kimchi, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, miso)
- Filtered water, green tea, good quality coffee