You had black tea sweetened with agave, low-fat yogurt, and mango for breakfast; lunch was a turkey breast sandwich on whole-grain bread. You snacked on grapes and organic peanuts. But these innocent and healthy-sounding choices may be creating an overly acid condition in your body. And that’s a problem.
Chronically acidic blood causes a variety of troubling conditions and illnesses, including fatigue, foggy thinking, weight gain and heartburn. New research suggests that acidosis may also be linked to Alzheimer’s (1), bone loss (2, 3), kidney malfunction (4), decreased levels of growth hormone (5), increased levels of stress hormones (6), and a reduction in the body’s ability to detoxify itself (7). And some studies point to acidosis as a factor in the development of cancer (8, 9).
The condition is common. Most people have a slight acid imbalance, the unfortunate result of the typical American diet and lifestyle. But you can kick acid, feel better, detoxify your body and protect your bones, with a simple pH-balanced diet.
Why pH is important
It’s currently fashionable, but the concept of a pH-balanced diet isn’t new. In 1933, William Howard Hay, MD, a New York physician, promoted a diet that balanced the body’s pH levels. He theorized that the Western diet was too high in meat, sugar, and other foods that lead to an acidic condition, which he claimed was the cause of heart disease and other illnesses. The idea was revived in the 1960s, when George Ohsawa and Michio Kushi came to the United States to teach macrobiotic principals, including balancing acid and alkaline foods in the diet.
Our bodies need both acid and alkaline compounds to function properly. An acid condition, or acid imbalance, means that the blood and cellular fluids in the body have an acidic pH (the relative proportion of acid to alkaline) and not enough alkaline compounds to balance them. A pH-balanced diet is one that features acid and alkaline foods in the proper balance.
A food is classified as either acid or alkaline, depending on its mineral content. When a food contains a preponderance of alkaline-forming minerals, like calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron and potassium, relative to acid-forming minerals, like phosphorous, copper and sulphur, it’s said to be acid-forming. So kale, for example, is alkaline-forming because it’s rich in calcium and magnesium, while sodas are acid-forming because they’re high in phosphorous.
PH is measured on a scale of 1 (the most acid) to 14 (the most alkaline; a neutral pH is 7. The optimal pH of the blood is 7.2 to 7.4, or slightly alkaline. If that very narrow range drops by even .2, the body will respond by trying to neutralize excess acids, buffering them with minerals it pulls from the blood. If the blood contains insufficient levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium and other acid-buffering minerals, the body will draw on reserves from the bones or other body tissue, including the liver and the heart.
Solving the acid problem
If you suspect you’re overly acid, it’s easy to find out, with inexpensive pH test strips, available at most pharmacies. Over the course of a day, test your urine each time you go to the bathroom; keep track of the results and find an average at the end of the day. The optimal pH of urine is around 7. A slightly more acid measure—around 6.7 or 6.5—is normal, too, and is a common response if you’ve just consumed an acid food, like a cup of coffee. But if it’s lower than 6, day after day, you should pay attention.
If your body is too acid, a simple shift in diet and lifestyle can restore your balance. Start by reducing stress. During a stress response, the muscles get tense and tight, breathing is shallow, and oxygen flow is reduced. Because oxygen is alkalizing to the body, and carbon dioxide is acidic, when we’re not inhaling and exhaling fully, we tend to become relatively acidic.
Deep breathing reduces stress and increases the rate at which carbon dioxide is released from the body; when carbon dioxide builds up in the blood, it reacts with water to form carbonic acid, which causes a more acid balance in the blood. Exercise relieves stress and reduces acidity; even something as simple as a brisk walk or jumping on a miniature trampoline increases respiration and oxygenates the blood, which makes the body more alkaline. Don’t push it, though; excessive exercise causes a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, creating a more acid condition in the body.
But the biggest impact on pH balance comes from diet, and consuming more alkaline foods can dramatically improve an acid condition and protect against diseases caused by acidosis. Recent studies also suggest that alkaline diets are associated with a reduction in joint inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis (10), and preservation of lean muscle mass (11).
In general, processed foods, meat, dairy, eggs, fish, corn, peanuts, chocolate, sugar, artificial sweeteners and wheat tend to be the most acidic. Plant foods tend to be more alkaline, in varying degrees (see “Balancing Act,” below). Beyond that, individual lists of acid and alkaline foods vary, and even the experts disagree. One point of debate is a category called weak acids, or foods that contain a fair amount of acid—like tomatoes, lemons, and sweet fruits—but may become alkaline in the body.
It depends on individual metabolic differences. Some people are capable of oxidizing the acids in those foods to make them alkaline; some people cannot. A lemon may be acid-forming for one person, alkaline-forming for another.
You can test your individual response: Measure the pH of your urine, eat a weak-acid food, like a tomato, and measure your pH again several hours later. If it’s unchanged, you may be able to oxidize the acids in the tomato. Or just try cutting out all weak-acid foods for a few weeks, and see if you notice any difference in troubling symptoms or conditions. For a list of some common acid, alkaline, and weak-acid foods, see “Balancing Act,” below.
Many good-for-you foods—beans, nuts, fruit—fall on the acid end of the spectrum, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them. The pH balance diet strives for balance; shoot for a 70-to-30 ratio of alkaline-to-acid foods, and choose your acid foods wisely. Don’t waste the acid portion of your diet on unhealthy choices like coffee, soda, white flour or sugar. Instead, choose the most nutrient-dense acid foods, like beans, peas, nuts, seeds, whole grains and fruit. Then balance those out with alkaline fruits and vegetables.
Even sugar, salt and meat—highly acid-forming foods—aren’t necessarily forbidden. Just use them in very small amounts, and in their unprocessed forms, which are rich in naturally occurring minerals: raw, unfiltered honey, unrefined sugar, and sea salt. And choose organic meat, eggs and dairy—which are less likely to be contaminated with acid-forming pesticide residues, antibiotic and added hormones—and eat them in small quantities.
Simple ways to be balanced
Righting a pH-imbalance may take months, depending on how long the acid condition has existed. Generally, though, most people see improvements in a few weeks, says Vasey. If you’re ready to embark on a more balanced approach to life, start with these simple steps:
Clear your cupboards of highly acid-forming foods. The worst offenders: alcohol, table salt, white sugar, artificial sweeteners, coffee, soft drinks, refined and processed foods, transfats, and white flour—all the things you already know are bad for you.
Stock up on whole foods. Vegetables, especially greens, are the most alkalizing; focus on these, and you’ll instantly begin to transform your pH. And while other whole foods, like beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains, tend to be more acid-forming than vegetables, they’re far less acid-forming that processed foods and animal products.
Eat fruit in moderation. It’s nutritious, but highly acid-forming for most people. Limit to one serving a day, especially at the beginning of your regimen, and stick to low-acid fruits like avocado, grapefruit, and oranges. And remember, if you’re yearning for a sweet treat, a piece of fruit is always a better choice than a candy bar.
Make lower-acid substitutions. Some examples: Give up white sugar, and use a combination of raw, unfiltered honey and stevia to sweeten beverages and foods. Replace cow’s milk with coconut milk or almond milk. Swap sodas for sparkling water with a splash of lemon juice and a drop of stevia.
Work your way up. Don’t try to change your diet overnight. Start with a 50-50 ratio, or make one meal a day alkaline. Combine equal parts coffee and a grain- or herb-based coffee substitute like Teeccino grain beverage, gradually working your way toward eliminating coffee. Or just start by adding more alkaline foods, rather than eliminating acids. Make the transition slowly, and you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
Ready to give it a whirl? Arm yourself with a book or two. The Ultimate pH Solution, by Michelle Schoffro Cook, DNM, DAC, CNC, is short but comprehensive, and Eat Papayas Naked by Susan Lark, MD (Silverback Books, 2005) offers dozens of recipes. And try the recipes here to help you get started.
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