March 20, 2022

SMITH | Another Social Media Diet pHenomenon?

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My last article on the keto diet left me itching to do another piece on a different diet that I’ve been hearing a lot about. There are a lot of Instagram diets that promise to cure a wide range of general ailments like “bloating” and “cancer” while also promoting weight loss. In the words of one of my favorite podcasts, Sawbones, “cure-alls usually cure nothing;” I’m always wary of any diet that makes too many promises. Anyone who spends time on Instagram has at one point or another run across posts touting the benefits of an “alkaline diet.” This is a great example of a cure-all diet that claims to cure herpes, have anti-cancer and anti-arthritic properties and more! Upon further research, it seems to me, however, that all of this diet’s potential benefits come from the emphasis on fruits and veggies and prohibition of processed foods, and not so much us performing our own science experiment on our bodies. 

For people who have wiped CHEM 2070 from their minds, alkaline refers to an environment where the pH is greater than 7, i.e. slightly basic. The diet aims for people to eat foods that are more alkaline and avoid foods that are acidic, with the goal of “balancing” your body’s pH through diet. It does seem at least fairly logical that dumping a bunch of acidic foods into your body couldn’t be good. For anyone that’s seen a titration gone wrong or watched a horror movie with a villain whose face was distorted by chemical burns, it seems reasonable that we should keep anything in that wheelhouse far away. The more I learn about the human body, the more I am amazed that anything functions properly. However, we eat acidic foods every day — and I’m not just talking about lemon juice. Certain dairy products, brown rice and certain animal proteins all have more acidic properties

Also as a throwback to CHEM 2070 and 2080 (I’m sorry if you never wanted to remember those days), you might recall that you can neutralize acids and bases by adding a base to an acid or an acid to a base. The body does this naturally. Our blood contains a buffer of carbonic acid (H2CO3) and bicarbonate anions (HCO3-) that work together to create a slightly alkaline net pH. Different places in our body have different pH values, with the skin hovering between 4 and 6.5 to serve as protection from microbes, gastric (stomach) fluid between 1.35 to 3.5 to facilitate the breakdown of protein and urine between 4.6 to 8.0 to limit microbe growth and serve as a way to excrete excess hydrogen (H+) ions. As the last chemistry class throwback (I promise), our body’s enzymes function best at various pH values, and are activated by certain environments. 

Overall, there is no overwhelming or conclusive evidence that your diet does much to change the pH of your body, as it seems to mainly alter the pH of your urine. PRAL, the Potential Renal Acid Loads of foods, refers to the amount of acid your body produces when digesting a certain food. While people with certain medical conditions such as renal (kidney) disease may want to monitor this because of impaired function, overall, I want to focus on a key element of the alkaline diet that can sometimes get lost in the chemistry: the alkaline diet focuses on a reduction in processed foods and a higher intake of fruits and vegetables. Cutting back on processed foods and eating more fruits and vegetables is a more likely reason people feel better on the diet rather than because they have “balanced” their body’s pH. Digestive disease dietitian Sabrina Toledano wrote a great short article on pH-focused diets and had this advice: focus on the quality of your diet and if you have concerns, speak to a physician or dietitian (or both!). 

Like I mentioned in my article on the keto diet, a lot of people are seeking a “hack” to their health with just enough science behind it that it sounds good. I’m a big proponent of researching each of these diets for any potential validity, but more often than not, the science isn’t there — it always comes back to eating fruits and vegetables and remembering your intro Chem courses! 

Emma Smith (she/they) is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]. Emmpathy appears every other Monday this semester.