When you hear "acid" or "acidic," you probably don't think of good outcomes. More likely, you're reminded of the burning sensation of lemon juice coming in contact with a cut on your finger. Or perhaps you think of the terrible heartburn you get after eating tomatoes.
There's been a lot of talk lately about the acidic effects of the typical Western diet. Refined carbs, meats, and dairy are being demonized as "acid-producing" foods that leach calcium from bones and wreak internal havoc. This sounds pretty scary, and it's only natural to assume that acid overload can create toxic conditions in the body and speed up disease processes.
According to the Alkaline Diet, this can be remedied by avoiding foods that create acidic conditions in the body and eating more foods that are considered alkaline (the opposite of acidic).
Indeed, modern agricultural and industrial practices have changed the acidity of our environment and the foods we eat. Yet the human body has systems in place to control the acidity of our blood within a tight range.
Still, is that enough? Should we be drinking alkaline water and eating green food powders to help maintain balance?
Acidity in and of itself can actually be a positive thing. Our skin is naturally acidic to prevent too many bacteria from growing. And without stomach acid, we'd have a heck of a time digesting food. In fact, protein, iron, and calcium need acidic conditions to be effectively digested and absorbed.
Interestingly enough, tart and acidic foods like lemons and tomatoes are categorized as alkaline in the Alkaline Diet. "Acidic" foods are the ones that result in more acids being formed as a result of digestion and metabolism.
Keep in mind that acids are natural byproducts of metabolism. When acids are released into the blood, they get filtered through the kidneys. Think about how you drain pasta water through a colander. If the colander is one of your kidneys, then the pasta is the stuff you want to keep in the body. Excess water and other things you don't need (like acids) are filtered out to create urine.
We also have other ways to maintain the acidity of our blood at the correct level. Believe it or not, we can get rid of extra acid just by breathing!When it comes to bone health, parts of our bones are constantly being broken down and built back up. That's because calcium levels also need to be kept within strict limits in the blood. Acidic blood can leach calcium from bones, but this doesn't necessarily translate into overall loss of bone mass. To make up for the losses, the body encourages rebuilding by absorbing more calcium from food and decreasing the amount that's lost through urine.
So yes, grains, meats, and dairy may produce more acids when we digest them. The blood may temporarily get more acidic, but the body quickly fixes the problem.
This may all seem complicated, but the solution is actually straightforward. The alkaline diet promotes increased consumption of fruits and vegetables for their "acid-reducing" properties. But we've known all along that a diet rich in whole grains, lean meats, and fruits and vegetables leads to better health outcomes.
And actively avoiding dairy products can negatively impact bone health, unless serious efforts are made to get enough calcium from other foods and supplements.
While the spirit of the alkaline diet might be in the right place, you don't need special supplements or a hyped-up rationale to eat healthy.
Today's post was written by Leia Kedem. Leia Kedem, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. She appears weekly on WCIA-3/WCIX-49 and is a biweekly contributor to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts where she regularly posts health tips and answers nutrition questions for free.