Why Some Doctors Warn Against The Alkaline Diet

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What if we told you that balancing the pH in your blood, as well as losing weight and fighting cancer, is as simple as a diet change? We'd be lying, of course, but those are just some of the claims made by followers of the alkaline diet.

Like many fad diets, the alkaline diet gained popularity once celebrities started unofficially endorsing it on social media. Victoria Beckham tweeted a picture of an alkaline cookbook back in 2013, which Insider reports was the inciting incident for the diet going viral. Kate Hudson, Dorinda Medley, and Kelly Ripa's nutritionists have all touted the benefits of the alkaline diet, and Rebel Wilson's weight loss was also credited to a high-alkaline diet.

On the surface, the alkaline diet may be one of the least dangerous of the fad diets celebrities have endorsed. The five-bite diet, for instance, has potentially lethal consequences, while others, like the werewolf diet, just aren't based in reality. David Herber, professor of medicine and chief of the department of clinical nutrition at UCLA, told the Los Angeles Times that the alkaline diet is "good advice based on a bogus premise."

In 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that there was a "growing number of people" claiming that consuming "meats, wheat, soda, coffee, alcohol, and processed foods" produces acidic levels in the body that they believed led to "arthritis, obesity, and cancer." 

But, when it comes to the science of these claims, evidence continues to be severely lacking regarding the alkaline diet — and many doctors warn against it.

This is what fans claim the alkaline diet can do

While celebrities didn't jump on the alkaline trend until we were deep into the 2010s, the first book on the subject came out in 2002. Co-authored by Shelly Redford Young and Robert O. Young, "The pH Miracle" included many strong claims about the benefits of the alkaline diet — and it also happens to be one of the main sources others cite when creating their own alkaline diet cookbooks.

But, when it comes to the benefits of the diet, many proponents can only offer vague details or results that have no basis in evidence. Keven Suttle, the founder of the now-closed alkaline-antioxidant water brand Smooth 8, told the Los Angeles Times he believes that "an alkaline body is a healthy body" in which diseases can't thrive because "they thrive in acid." 

Suttle also posits that "acid-causing foods lead to obesity" because, per his claims, the body stores fat to protect against disease. Plus, he asserts that "many tumors can grow only in acidic environments."

But one of the most dangerous claims Young made about the so-called benefits of the alkaline diet is that it could cure cancer. At least, that's what Young promised a young British Army officer in 2009, per the BBC. To cure her breast cancer, she simply had to stay at Young's pH Miracle Ranch in California for eight to 12 weeks, he said. The cost was $3,000 a day, per the BBC.

Wait, the founder of the alkaline diet ended up in jail?

The British Army officer, Naima Houder-Mohammed, and her family spent more than $77,000 for Robert O. Young's "miracle cure," the BBC reports — a bill that he demanded to be paid even before she came to his ranch.

The treatment Young gave Houder-Mohammed and dozens of other terminally ill patients "included intravenous infusions of an alkaline solution of sodium bicarbonate," according to the BBC. Essentially, the infusions contained baking soda — the same kind you find in your pantry or fridge.

But it wasn't until 2011 that any investigations began into Young and his treatment center. According to the BBC, the Medical Board of California found that, of 15 cancer patients being treated at the ranch — with some patients even being cared for directly by Young himself — none outlived their initial prognosis, including Houder-Mohammed, who died after three months of treatment at Young's ranch. She was 27.

By 2014, however, Young was arrested for practicing medicine without a license, per Hartford Courant. In fact, despite claiming he was a microbiologist, medical doctor, hematologist, naturopathic doctor, and formally trained scientist, court documents revealed that Young never completed any education beyond high school.

When the BBC asked Young via email if he had any remorse over the patients he lost, he said he didn't, adding that he believed "thousands if not millions of people" have been "helped" by his alkaline diet.

There's no evidence to back up the alkaline diet's claims

The evidence supporting the alkaline diet is severely lacking. Vicki Edison, a nutritional therapist and co-author of the cookbook "Eating the Alkaline Way," told the Los Angeles Times that she's received a lot of pushback, with many critics demanding evidence for her claims. 

One she makes is that "humans have a hard time digesting meat." David Huber, chief of the department of clinical nutrition at UCLA, told the Los Angeles Times that this is just not true.

The alkaline diet is also dangerous to athletes, senior registered dietitian Erika Zoellner told Baylor College of Medicine. Between the lack of omega-3 fatty acids and protein and cutting carbs from your daily diet, anyone physically active may be in danger of malnutrition.

Another of these claims — that food "leaves behind an acid ash in the body," per Insider, causing diseases like osteoporosis — has been disproven in several studies. Osteoporosis, Healthline explains, is mainly linked to "a loss in the protein collagen from the bone," which studies show can be caused by a lack of "orthosilicic acid and ascorbic acid, or vitamin C" in your diet.

So, can you actually eat your way to a balanced pH? Unfortunately, no. As Huber points out to the Los Angeles Times, this is just another false promise of magical weight loss via minimal effort. Studies have repeatedly shown that food has no effect on the pH levels in your blood.

So what about alkaline water?

While the science behind the alkaline diet ranges from sketchy to nonexistent, it's left us wondering what that means for alkaline water. Alyse Leveine, M.S., R.D., and founder of Nutrionbite LLC, explained to Shape that water with a pH over 7 "has a lower concentration of hydrogen ions."

As the Cleveland Clinic points out, these bottled products claim to give you an energy boost, hydrate you better, prevent certain digestive issues and diseases, and even slow down aging. Leveine also told Shape that alkaline water has antioxidants and will make you look and feel younger. The Mayo Clinic even reports that some studies suggest alkaline water might help slow bone loss.

But these claims, much like those about the alkaline diet, aren't based on evidence, says Beth Czerwony, a registered dietitian, per the Cleveland Clinic. The studies on alkaline water have been extremely limited thus far, and more research is needed.

Staying properly hydrated is key to a healthy body. If drinking alkaline water helps you stay hydrated, Czerwony sees no risk in drinking it. Just remember that you don't need to pay extra for something, like balancing your pH, that your body already does on its own.