Lets be honest. One of the things I get most confused with “nutritionally speaking” is understanding acid-forming vs. alkaline-forming foods. You may hear practitioners boast about alkaline diets offering benefits to one’s body, but why is this so?

Some experts believe acid-forming foods – some fish, meat, dairy, grains and processed foods – can lead to GI troubles, weak bones, lower-back pain, while alkaline-forming foods with lower acidity – fruits and vegetables – may keep the body in much better balance and overall health.

The notion behind the “alkaline diet” is that a diet consisting of more fruits and veggies can better balance the body’s pH. This helps mitigate heartburn, acid reflux, other GI problems, among other things. What does this acid – alkaline talk mean? PH is the measure of how acidic or basic a solution is, ranging from 0 to 14. A pH of 1.0 is very acidic, while a pH of 14.0 is very basic, making 7.0 neutral. Our body generally maintains a pH between 7.38 and 7.42, yet stomach acid in the gut hovers around 2.0 and can drop to 1.35. When our pH is off, it means that something is off internally.

But it’s not this simple. Just because a food is acidic doesn’t mean its considered “acid-forming” – that’s a matter of how the food impacts the acidity of body fluids in the kidney and urine after eating. This is measured using potential renal acid load scores (PRAL). A higher PRAL score (indicated by a positive number) means that a particular food is very acid-forming, such as dairy, meats and processed foods. On the flip side a lower PRAL score (indicated by a negative number) classifies the food as alkaline, meaning that it produces more basic compounds, such as fruits and vegetables.

What does this mean?

It continues to be complicated. Most vegetables, fruits and some nuts (cashews and almonds), some grains (quinoa), oils, and legumes (lentils and green beans) are considered ‘a-okay.’ Meat, fish, poultry, and dairy are better to consume in moderation; processed foods (white sugar and flour) and caffeine should best be consumed even less often or not at all. The really tricky part is that many foods fall in the middle. Dairy for instance can range in PRAL score from around one up to over 30, even veggies and fruits – which are generally consider a healthy part of an alkaline diet – can range in PRAL score from -14 (good) to 0 (not so good).

Key Point: Just because a certain food is in itself very acidic doesn’t mean it is acid forming. Lemons are a perfect example. Lemons are very acidic with a pH of 2.0, yet have a PRAL score of -2.5, meaning when digested they are alkaline in the body!

Who cares?

With food intolerances, allergies and other chronic health issues on the up and up, people gravitate toward the alkaline diet, as it offers hope of eliminating or lessoning certain symptoms such as heartburn and acid reflex. There is the debate however that eating more acid-forming foods may change the pH of our urine, but can it really change the pH of blood. The alkaline diet’s potential benefits likely stem from an increased consumption of fresh produce, as there are undoubtedly loads of benefits to consuming lots of veggies. Also, with a strictly alkaline diet you miss out on the nutritional benefits of fish and meat. Another important point is that when the body’s acidity is too high, it pulls minerals such as potassium, magnesium and calcium from bones in order to neutralize and maintain the body’s pH.

Bottom Line:

Vegetables are undoubtedly important for our bodies to function in tip-top shape, as well as fruits and protein sources such as fish and meats, providing nutrients for growth and development, brain function, etc. I always advise people to cut back on dairy, grains and processed foods while dealing with any inflammatory issue, other conditions or weight management. But, regardless of illness and disease its always wise to cut back on these foods, as they don’t offer nearly as many benefits to our bodies.