Acidity Basics

Smart food choices help your body maintain a proper pH balance.

September 2011

By Linda Melone

Do you lack energy or have difficulty sleeping and thinking clearly? Excess acid in your diet may be to blame. If you eat an acid-producing diet of meats, grains and packaged foods, the effects can go beyond just feeling lousy and out of whack—you may actually be putting your health at risk.

A diet high in alkaline-forming fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, reduces your risk for bone and muscle loss and may stave off other health woes as well. Not surprisingly, many of the guidelines for an alkaline diet fall in line with a healthy diet for anyone: Eat less red meat and processed foods, and increase your produce intake.

What Is pH?

A brief science review: pH is a measure of particles called free hydrogen ions. Acids in food release these ions, which give acidic foods such as yogurt, citrus fruits and vinegar their distinct tang.
The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the food and the lower its pH. Foods with a pH below seven are considered acidic, water is neutral with a pH of seven and foods with a pH above seven are basic, or alkaline.

“The body maintains different pH levels within different tissues,” says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, athletic nutritional consultant and former director of the University of Utah Nutrition Clinic. For example, blood is neutral at about a pH of 7, urine is more acidic at about a pH of 6, stomach acid is very acidic at a pH of 1, while secretions from the pancreas are more alkaline at about pH of 8. Different pH levels allow the body to function properly; for example, digestion suffers if the stomach doesn’t produce enough acid to break down food proteins.

Excess Acidity’s woes

Foods high in acids are metabolized in the body to carbon dioxide and water, increasing the “acid side” of the metabolic balance equation, explains Talbott. “But when you eat food low in organic acids or high in organic anions [such as broccoli or cauliflower], it is metabolized to bicarbonate as an end product, which increases the ‘alkaline’ side of the equation.”

As a result, an alkali diet creates a better acid-base balance, which helps maintain an overall balance between tissue breakdown (catabolism) and tissue rebuilding (anabolism). “This may also lower rates of inflammation and, therefore, reduce heart disease risk, oxidation and cancer risk, glycation associated with diabetes and obesity risk, as well as stress hormones, which reduces depression risk,” says Talbott.

Disease thrives in an acidic environment, says Sally Kravich, MS, a New York holistic nutritionist. “High-sugar foods, coffee, soda and junk food are all high in acidity and create disease,” she says, adding that lifestyle issues such as stress and lack of sleep also produce acidity in the body.

“The strongest support for a balanced pH diet is based on studies of bone resorption [breakdown],” Talbott notes. For example, an October 2000 study in the Journal of Gerontology showed that increasing vegetable intake and decreasing animal foods intake significantly reduced the hip fracture risk in women age 50 and older. Another investigation, conducted by researchers at the Harvard Medical School, found that women who ate red meat five times a week were at least five times more likely to experience a bone fracture than women who ate red meat only once a week.

Your body normally does a pretty good job of regulating pH levels. When conditions become a little too acidic, however, the body has to work that much harder to get back into balance. “Having what we measure as a ‘high acid load’ can lead to accelerated bone breakdown and higher rates of fractures,” says Talbott.

The same holds true for muscle. According to a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (3/08), 384 men and women age 65 and older were followed over a three-year period. Participants who ate diets rich in acid-producing foods experienced a reduction in lean tissue, or muscle, mass. Those who ate a lot of alkaline foods appeared to maintain adequate muscle mass over time. This is especially important because keeping muscle helps prevent falls and the fractures that may result.

Avoiding lean tissue loss also makes it easier to remain mobile and live independently (Deutsches Ärzteblatt International 5/27/11).

Creating Better Balance

“Our diets should be based on fresh foods whenever possible and the greater the variety the better,” says Dian Griesel, PhD, co-author (with her brother, Tom) of TurboCharged: Accelerate Your Fat Burning Metabolism, Get Lean Fast and Leave Diet and Exercise Rules in the Dust (Business School of Happiness). “A well-balanced diet containing enough fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and quality natural protein is what our bodies thrive on. When such a diet is consumed on a regular basis, attempting to micro-manage acid/alkaline balance is unnecessary.” Problem is, most people do not eat nearly enough fruits and vegetables, which tips the scales towards acidity.

“You simply cannot get the benefits of an alkaline diet by taking alkaline drops [designed to increase pH levels] and not changing your diet,” says Kravich, who adds that the easiest way to ensure you’re eating enough alkaline foods is to fill at least one-half to two-thirds of your dinner plate with vegetables. For an instant jolt of alkalinity, she suggests drinking a glass of fresh-squeezed vegetable juice.

Packaged foods are at the top of the acidity scale and should be limited, says Kravich. Other highly acidic foods include meat, coffee, artificial sweeteners, beer and alcohol, pickles, fruit juice and black tea. Moderately acidic foods include mayonnaise, ketchup, miso, mustard, soy sauce, cheese, pineapple, pomegranate, brown rice, sauerkraut, pears, figs, pineapples and tomatoes. Oils, asparagus, green beans and many fruits and nuts rank slightly alkaline. Fresh red beets, alfalfa, celery, cilantro, jicama and sprouts top the most-alkaline list.

Grains are a problem because they are loaded with carbohydrates and gluten, says Georgianna Donadio, MSc, PhD, DC, founder and director of the National Institute of Whole Health in Boston. “They should only be consumed if they’re sprouted; then they’re vegetables.”

Many foods classified as “moderately acidic,” such as citrus fruits, contain vitamins, minerals and other compounds in a low-sugar package and should be part of any well-balanced diet, says Griesel. Ditto for coffee and yogurt, both of which contain health benefits. “Highly acidic foods, however, such as refined and processed foods, and most grains, have a dehydrating and acidic effect on the body and should be eliminated from the diet,” says Griesel.

“Also keep in mind that a ‘raw’ diet doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an alkaline diet, as many acidic foods may be eaten raw,” says Kravich.

And be aware of fine distinctions: lemonade is acidic, but lemon squeezed into a glass of water is not. “The sugar added to lemonade makes it acidic,” Kravich says.

Cut out all carbonated beverages and processed ingredients such as fake creamers, recommends Kravich. Eliminate all chips and cut back on sauces, sugar and ketchup. Use honey or stevia drops instead of artificial sweeteners.

Eat raw nuts with an apple instead of trail mixes, which may be high in sugar and, therefore, acidity. Or eat natural peanut butter, almond or cashew butter with apple slices. Hummus with raw veggies also makes a healthy, low-acid snack.

Delicious options for alkaline-rich meals abound, says Kravich. “Everyone’s specific dietary needs vary,” she adds; for example, athletes require more complex carbohydrates.
Quick, high-alkaline snack or breakfast ideas include:

• A smoothie with coconut water, mango, blueberries and/or avocado and whey protein powder (hemp or rice protein if you cannot tolerate whey)

• A juice of celery, parsley, carrots, beets, apples and ginger

• A veggie omelet containing half eggs and half veggies (the veggies contain digestive enzymes to break down the eggs, says Kravich)

Monitor and Adjust

Blood pH fluctuates throughout the day, so pH test strips are not reliable in monitoring the effectiveness of dietary changes. Instead, Kravich suggests relying on the way you feel to judge whether or not an alkaline diet is working for you. If you feel fatigued during the day, avoid starches and stick with vegetables. “If you can’t get to sleep, eat carbs at night, which may help you fall asleep,” she adds.

Since an acidic diet breaks down bone and muscle, those at risk for osteoporosis and sarcopenia, muscle wasting due to age, stand to benefit the most, says Kravich. People with digestive issues and ulcers may also benefit with more alkalizing foods in cooked form.

People who switch to alkaline foods often feel better within a week, says Kravich. “You may have a headachy period the first week as you go through junk-food withdrawal, but you’ll end up feeling better.”

Increased energy, greater mental clarity and more restful sleep: All these—and better overall health and well-being—will be your rewards for a more alkali way of eating.


Warm Mushroom and Asparagus Salad

1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp orange zest
2 tsp lemon zest
2 tbsp molasses
2 tbsp rice syrup*
2 tbsp water
2 cloves garlic, pressed
2 tsp grainy mustard
12 oz button mushrooms, halved
6 oz asparagus, ends trimmedand halved diagonally

1 red bell pepper, cut intothin strips
6 cups mixed baby greens

* Made from brown rice; less sweet and less acidifying than sugar.

1. In a 4 1/2 qt saucepan, combine the fruit juices and zest over high heat; stir well. Add molasses, rice syrup, water, garlic and mustard. Stir well and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to medium-low. Add mushrooms and toss for 2 minutes; remove from heat.

2. In a 12” skillet, arrange the asparagus in a single layer. Add water to cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, remove from heat, and let sit for 1 minute. Drain and place in a medium-sized bowl of ice water to prevent further cooking. Drain again.

3. Remove mushrooms from the saucepan with a slotted spoon and place in a medium-sized bowl.

4. Place saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2-4 minutes, or until slightly thickened and syrupy. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

5. In a large bowl, combine the mushrooms, asparagus, red pepper and salad greens; toss well. Arrange equal portions in 6 salad bowls, drizzle with the sauce and serve.

Serves 6. Analysis per serving: 78 calories, 3g protein, 1g fat (none saturated), 3g fiber,
18g carbohydrate, 35 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from The Amazing Acid Alkaline
Cookbook by Bonnie Ross (Square One,


Raisin Zucchini Muffins

6 tbsp water
2 tbsp ground flax seed
1 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk
1 1/2 cups dark raisins
1 1/2 cups grated zucchini
1/3 cup molasses
1/3 cup Sucanat sugar*
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup melted clarified butter**
3 cups light spelt flour***
1 tbsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt

* Sugarcane juice reduced to a dark syrup and dried; less acidifying than other types of sugar.
** Unsalted butter from which the milk solids have been removed.
*** Spelt, an ancient relative of wheat, makes a denser, less acidifying flour than wheat does.

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly coat a 12-cup muffin pan with vegetable oil or clarified butter, or use a silicone pan or paper liners.

2. In a large bowl, combine the water and flax seed. Stir until well blended; let sit for 10 minutes. Add milk, raisins, zucchini, molasses, Sucanat, applesauce and butter. Stir until well blended.

3. In another large bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients. Make a well in the center.

4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix with a spoon just until combined.

5. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.

6. Let the muffins cool in the pan for no more than 2 minutes before transferring to a cooking rack.

Yields 12 muffins. Analysis per muffin: 290 calories, 7g protein, 7g fat (5g saturated),
6g fiber, 61g carbohydrate, 210 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from The Amazing Acid Alkaline Cookbook by Bonnie Ross (Square One,


Vegetable Crumble

2 cups broccoli florets (about 1 head)
2 cups cauliflower florets (about ½ head)
2 cups diced butternut squash
1 medium-sized zucchini, coarsely chopped
1 small red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
2 tbsp clarified butter
2 tbsp light spelt flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk
1/2 cup finely chopped curd cheese or mozzarella (about 4 oz)
1 clove garlic, pressed
1/2 tsp sea salt


Crumble Topping

1/4 cup clarified butter
1/4 cup light spelt flour
1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
2 tbsp raw sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly coat a 2 1/2-qt casserole dish with vegetable oil and set aside.

2. Place the topping ingredients in a small bowl or food processor. Mix well with a spoon or process until crumbly and set aside.

3. In a 4 1/2-qt saucepan, cover the broccoli, cauliflower, squash, zucchini, bell pepper and onion with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until slightly tender. Drain and transfer to the prepared casserole dish.

4. Reduce the heat to low, add the butter and flour to the saucepan and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes.

5. Slowly add the milk to the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened.

6. Add the cheese, garlic and salt to the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until blended. Pour over the vegetables.

7. Sprinkle the topping over the vegetables and bake for 25 minutes, or until the topping is bubbly and golden brown, and serve.

Serves 8. Analysis per serving: 224 calories, 9g protein, 15g fat (8g saturated), 5g fiber,
14g carbohydrates, 254 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from The Amazing Acid Alkaline
Cookbook by Bonnie Ross (Square One,



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