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  • Writer's pictureby Eve Lees

pH balance: Can diet make you ‘acidic’?

Originally published in The White Rock Sun, November 2016

Among the many highly debated health topics is the belief your body can become acidic from eating acid-forming foods, like meats and grains . . . and that being ‘acidic’ is linked to poor health. These assumptions are partly right and partly wrong because they have been extremely simplified. Your body’s alkalinity or acidity – your pH balance – is a very confusing, complicated process.

Can we become acidic? Well . . . yes and no. Yes, because if you eat an acid-forming food, like meats or grains, a pH urine test might indicate you are temporarily ‘acidic’ until your body eliminates the acid residue (therefore, you can be very healthy, yet still test ‘acidic’). And . . . most likely no: throughout your body there are many differing pH levels. It precisely maintains the levels of its many systems despite what you just ate. So, unless you have organ failure or were poisoned, it's difficult to become entirely ‘acidic.’ If you were, you could not function normally. You wouldn’t be sitting here reading this. You would most likely be severely ill, perhaps in the hospital, or dead.

Your body is designed to maintain the many differing pH levels required in various body areas. The human body (including all its pH levels) is not static – everything is constantly changing to maintain homeostasis or ‘balance.’ Several metabolic pathways carefully monitor and adjust your pH levels in response to diet, stress, exercise, and many other factors. If this didn’t happen, you’d die.

The confusion about acid/alkaline balance can perhaps be attributed to the simplified mindset that being acidic is ‘bad’ and being alkaline is 'good.' Actually, our bodies are a balance of both, as are our foods – that’s nature’s design. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, you can be temporarily ‘acidic’ but not ill, or you can test ‘alkaline' yet still have poor health.

Our bodies are a balance of both acid and alkaline,

just like our foods. That’s nature’s design.

Test strips used to test the pH balance of your urine or saliva are not an accurate indication of your blood's acidity or alkalinity. Urine tests are used with other testing methods to diagnose particular disorders like kidney problems or urinary tract infections. But ultimately, your blood's pH never changes, it varies throughout your body, and is strictly maintained regardless of your diet.

Testing your pH urine is not necessary due to its inaccuracies. However, if you choose to test your urine and it reads acidic, this is likely a symptom that you recently ate an acid-forming food (generally categorized as meats and grains, and of course, "junk" food). The food was the cause of that symptom. If you are healthy and eating a balanced diet which includes lots of alkaline-forming foods (predominantly fruits and vegetables), this symptom of ‘acidity’ is temporary. No need to worry. But if you are not regularly eating a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables, you may want to stay curious about why you always seem to be 'acidic' when you test your urine. You could ask your doctor to check your kidney health, if it really concerns you. But the best action to take is to start eating more veggies!

The underlying cause of your symptom of regularly testing as 'acidic' is likely due to your dietary choices. But many choose to treat the symptom instead, with a heavy focus on alkaline-forming foods, alkaline water, and other alkalizing products.

Here’s the problem with treating the symptom only: While it will definitely change and correct your test results (and perhaps make you feel better, only because you increased your plant consumption!), you haven’t really addressed the underlying cause of your regularly acidic test results. You haven’t learned anything. The underlying issue (your overall diet) wasn’t corrected because you simply put a band-aid on the problem. This is similar to blood pressure and cholesterol testing. Like pH testing, these tests can be used to measure your health. A poor test result may identify a problem but not its cause. Yet many doctors immediately prescribe drugs to reduce high levels of cholesterol or hypertension (the symptoms), often failing to investigate the cause of why those levels became elevated in the first place.

When testing your urine pH, acidity is the symptom. It's best to treat the underlying cause of that symptom: your food choices. Therefore, choose to eat a balanced diet of both alkaline and acid-forming foods. Following an ‘alkaline only’ diet limits your variety of nutrients, just as it would if you eat lots of ‘acidic’ foods. Both can create health problems over time.

A healthy diet is a major factor in maintaining good health. The focus should be on moderation, variety and balance in your food choices. You do not need to eat only alkaline-forming foods, use costly alkalizing products, or learn to test your pee.

We are designed to operate with a healthy balance of both an acid and alkaline pH, thus, we can include acid-forming foods – whole grains, nuts & seeds, and some fish or meat if you like – they all contribute valuable nutrients to keep you alive. So don’t worry about having salmon or quinoa (both ‘acid-forming’), especially if you accompany them with a generous serving of vegetables and perhaps fruit for dessert (both ‘alkaline-forming’). Our diet should be a balance of acid and alkaline foods. Nature wants that. (But personally, I like to lean a bit more toward the alkaline side, due to their high fibre and other nutrients. So I eat lots of veggies).

It’s obvious how healthy and balanced your diet is, just by looking at it. You don’t need a urine test to determine that. Do you even eat vegetables? How many? How often? Do you eat fruit daily? Do you have these plant-based foods at every meal? A truthful answer to these questions trumps the need to test your pee. If you aren’t eating plant foods – or regularly flunking your urine tests – that’s a darn good indication you aren’t getting a lot of variety in your diet; specifically the plant foods. Thus, you are missing vital nutrients your body needs to function efficiently.

Nutrients are the tools your body requires to keep you alive: Deprive yourself of any nutrient and you’ll get sick. These are simple facts many people don’t ‘get’ (and why we continually fall for diet myths). Being ‘acidic’ is not the issue you need to be concerned with – the root of the problem is a lack of food variety, which therefore creates a lack of nutrients. And a lack of nutrients leads to poor health.

Your body will become malnourished if all the nutrients you need are not being supplied. If you lack nutrients, you’ll become ill in some way. And yes, that can include getting cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. Fruits and vegetables offer the most anti-oxidants (disease fighters) and other phytochemicals vital to ensure good health. And there is growing evidence that plant fibre is linked to the health of our intestinal ‘gut’ bacteria – which has been strongly linked to the health of our immune system. But, sadly, many do not consume enough plant foods.

Unfortunately, acid-forming foods are the bulk of the typical Western diet, and this only fuels the belief that acidity equals poor health. The average person eats lots of meats, dairy products, caffeine, as well as plenty of highly processed stuff like sugar, salt, flour, hydrogenated fats, etc. These are all considered 'acidic' foods. Grains are also acid-forming and we eat far too many refined grain products. We are a sandwich culture: bread, buns, pastas and other flour-containing products constitute a large part of the average person’s diet. These food choices are responsible for many diseases and disorders. But the food's pH is not the problem here. The problem is many of these 'acidic' foods (the highly processed ones) offer few, if any, nutrients. Because our Western diet has a large focus on highly changed foods, we have limited our nutrient variety, therefore we suffer poor health. It’s no wonder many believe acidity means illness.

If you continue to eat mostly 'acid' foods, over time, the limited food variety will deprive you of many vital nutrients. Without adequate nutrition to help your body function normally, it won’t be able to handle its daily workload of helping your body function. As a result, your body will soon become exhausted.

Eventually, this ongoing, exhausting work leads to other health complications, like perhaps your bone health, muscle loss, aching joints, and chronic inflammation. By the way, does this slowly-evolving series of health issues sound familiar? It should. We call it “aging” – or what many recognize as aging. In my opinion, this gradual progression to poor health (aging) can be largely avoided or, at the very least, slowed with a sensible diet.

Toss out your pH strips and, instead, use common sense. Quit eating the junk (highly refined foods) and eat more veggies. Just taking these simple steps will reap significant improvements for those with mild health complaints. Even those with severe disorders like cancer should be very careful about limiting nutrients with any restricted-variety diet like the Alkaline Diet: This is really not the time to restrict nutrients. There’s no need to restrict your food variety to only alkaline-forming foods. Instead, get rid of the highly refined and processed foods, and eat a wide variety of whole, unchanged foods.

Incidentally, I’m not criticizing The Alkaline Diet. It does encourage eating more plants and allows a selection of acidic-forming foods, so it can be a healthy food plan to follow. My comments throughout this article refer to the practice of eating only alkaline-forming foods and omitting all acid-forming ones. However, my one concern with The Alkaline Diet is it may encourage the good-food, bad-food mentality: that acid foods are bad and alkaline foods are good. Therefore, some people may choose to restrict or omit many healthy foods, risking their good health over time. In this case, you would not be healthy because of poor nutrition, yet your pH urine test may read alkaline because you are still eating alkaline-forming foods. And in the reverse situation, as mentioned earlier, you can be healthy yet still test as ‘acidic’ after eating acid-forming foods. This shows how inaccurate it is to connect good or bad health to your urine's pH balance.

In summary:

  • ‘Acidity’ is how you want to interpret it: You can overreact, or you can relax and realize it normally happens from time to time. It really isn’t an indication of poor health. But it can be used as a symptom – possibly a strong hint to smarten up and eat more sensibly.

  • Treating the symptom (acidity) by ingesting only stuff that’s ‘alkaline’ is not fixing the problem. Testing your urine is no indication of your blood's pH, it merely reflects what you recently ate. Therefore, if you regularly test 'acidic' your diet is obviously lacking in variety because you are eating only a select type of food (in this case, the more acid-forming ones). So you need more nutrition: more food variety. But eating only alkaline-forming foods is the same as mainly eating acid-forming foods: You are again limiting the nutrients from healthful acid-forming foods, and you'll still risk future poor health.

  • You achieve ‘pH balance’ simply by eating healthful, real foods and choosing from a wide variety of them. This provides all the tools your body needs to keep you balanced and healthy.

All whole, unrefined foods should be included in your diet. This is your only guarantee you are getting all the nutrients (known and unknown) you need to survive. Perhaps follow Michael Pollan’s simple rule: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.


A former newspaper editor, Eve Lees has been a Nutrition Coach and a Health Researcher, Writer & Speaker for almost 40 years.

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