What’s the harm?


One day last week, I found myself talking to a small group of friends about this blog and why I felt it was important to explore some of science and pseudoscience in the health and fitness industry. The conversation took an interesting turn when someone asked me if there was any real potential for harm in allowing unsupported claims about health and fitness to persist….

To illustrate some of the misinformation prevalent today, I used the example of the “alkaline diet”. For those who may be unfamiliar with this concept, proponents claim that certain foods can affect your body pH (acidity level), and can thus be used to treat or prevent disease, including cancer. To be very clear, these claims are NOT supported by scientific evidence, and they make grossly inaccurate assumptions that are in complete disagreement with the modern understanding of human physiology.

Rather, basic biology tells us that while the pH of the stomach is highly acidic with a pH value between 2 and 3.5 (which is necessary to break down food), human blood is always slightly alkaline with a pH between 7.35 and 7.45. This narrow pH range of the blood is critical for human health, and is very tightly controlled by normal processes in the lungs and kidneys. In the absence of any pathology or disease, it is virtually impossible to significantly change your blood pH through consumption of food. In fact, nothing you eat or drink can significantly change the acidity of your body, with the exception of urine. That’s because any extra acid or base that you eat is simply removed by the kidneys and excreted in urine, while the pH of the blood and most other tissues in the body remain essentially unchanged.

Consider this fact: Any significant deviation outside of the normal pH range of the blood can lead to death. So, if it were that easy to manipulate our body pH through the inclusion or exclusion of certain foods, we would either not have survived as a species or we would have drastically different body chemistry!

No doubt there are some people who do feel better on an alkaline diet. Any improvements in health, however, are likely due to an increase in consumption of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and a decrease in consumption of processed foods and sugar, both of which could help normalize blood sugar and insulin levels and help improve hormone regulation. One thing is certain, though–these benefits are not from a change in body pH.

Back to the conversation with some friends…

After mentioning the alkaline diet myth, someone asked, “What’s the harm? So what, if someone wants to drink a lot of alkaline water and it makes them feel good about themselves?”

I paused and thought about her question for a moment…what IS the harm? Am I just bothered by the pseudoscience aspect, or is there a real potential for negative consequences from following an alkaline diet? Good question, right?! It is true that I’m very fact-driven, and pseudoscience is a pet peeve of mine. But is there an actual potential for harm? I would argue, yes, for several reasons.

  1. Believing that alkaline diets can be used to treat disease could delay individuals from seeking proper medical treatment.
  2. An alkaline diet promotes excluding certain families of foods, and thus, could result in a less-balanced diet and nutritional deficiencies.
  3. Finally, the belief that body pH is so easily changed by eating or avoiding specific foods could lead to unnecessary and excessive fear and anxiety about one’s health.

None of these possible effects are desirable and certainly do not improve one’s health, physical or mental. Unfortunately, I regularly read about individuals promoting the need to “alkalize” your body….not only by celebrities, bloggers, and fitness professionals with no scientific or medical training, but even from some registered dietitians and respected clinicians!

People are constantly being swamped with misinformation and half truths about health and fitness, and led to believe that they must be increasingly concerned about the “fragility” of their body.

“Our health becomes something we have to protect with a never failing, always higher reaching diligence.” – Mark Sisson

In reality, this is simply not true! The human body is remarkably resilient. No doubt that most of us would be better served by making a greater effort to make better choices with regard to our health. But the human body is not so frail as you are sometimes led to believe. You deserve better. You deserve accurate information that will aid you in your journey to better health and fitness, not hinder it.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Cheryl Keller Capone