In defence of the alkaline diet

Back in 2013, the alkaline diet was at peak popularity when Victoria Beckham referenced it on social media, and a key part of what was termed the clean-eating movement.

Unsurprisingly, the diet was denounced as a celebrity fad diet.

But the alkaline diet cannot be correctly labelled a fad, as it is nearly a century old. Like the keto diet, the alkaline diet was popular in the United States during the 1920s and 30s – during the period when the Australian naturopath Doctor Alice Caporn, Mrs Snook’s mentor, was studying nutrition and health in America.

And the alkaline diet remains popular with naturopaths.

The central premise of the diet is that the acidity or alkalinity (that is, the pH value) of your body can be influenced by eating alkaline foods.

Back in 2013 when I was living on meat and dairy, I had heard of the alkaline diet but only paid it any real attention when I discovered it was a way of eating that the pioneering Australian naturopaths Dr Alice Caporn and Dorothea Snook recommended.

The theory of the alkaline diet is that acid foods like dairy and meat produce an acid ash when metabolised in the gut.

This acidity, it is proposed, can make you vulnerable to illness and diseases, such as cancer.

Alkaline ash, however, which is produced mainly from plant-foods, is considered protective.

Here’s how Mrs Snook describes it in her 1965 publication ‘Was man intended by nature to be a herbivorous animal or a carnivorous animal?”:

 “All cancer patients I have seen have high acidity levels in saliva or urine. Animal proteins depend on the hydrochloric acid juices of the stomach for digestion and this makes them acid forming, so they must be equally balanced with alkaline foods such as raw vegetable salads and raw fruits. Correctly balanced meals are the secret to good health. Three quarters alkaline and one quarter acid is the correct combination. For one quarter fish, eat three quarters raw salad vegetables. Or three quarters fruit, one quarter nuts and raisins – and whole grain bread for heat and energy.”

The issue of acidity and alkalinity, as measured in urine, has been studied for decades.

Eminent French physiologist Claude Bernard (who died in 1878), discovered that changing the plant-based diet of rabbits to a meat diet altered the animal’s urine from a more alkaline state to a more acid one.

However, when it comes to the key concept of the alkaline diet, that reducing acid-forming foods such as sugar, meat and dairy from our diet helps prevent against cancer by making the body more alkaline, the key argument made against this is that diet cannot manipulate the alkalinity (or pH) of our bodies.

This is based on the fact that our blood pH levels are fixed. Our lungs and kidneys have a tightly controlled mechanism to regulate the pH of our blood. Therefore, the critics argue, the alkaline diet is a myth.

Yet we know that eating an alkaline diet is good for us – that is, eating plenty of foods labelled as ‘alkaline’, such as leafy green vegetables and plant-based foods.

And there have long been many testimonials from people claiming to have reversed, or cured, cancer and other illnesses by eating an alkaline diet. Indeed, anecdotal health improvements in cancer sufferers have long been attributed to the alkaline diet.

 “The alkaline diet couldn’t save my brother from cancer – but I’m glad that I persuaded him to try it,” was a headline in Britain’s ‘Daily Mail’ in 2013.

The article quotes British television presenter, Tim Lovejoy, whose 37-year-old brother James tried the alkaline diet in his battle against pancreatic cancer, and found the diet gave him a ‘new lease’ of life, allowing him to get up out of his sick bed and spend some time out of the house.

The article features supportive quotes from Professor Justin Stebbing, an oncologist at Bupa Cromwell Hospitals, who, while stating the alkaline diet cannot cure cancer, comments that the dietary changes of an alkaline diet can be beneficial for cancer sufferers. He also speculates that the new, rigid dietary regime of the alkaline diet may also give patients a sense of control over their disease.

While testimonials from those who believe the diet cured their cancer, such as those Mrs Snook cites in her books or those her family have supplied to me, are dismissed by science - this does not mean the alkaline diet should also be dismissed. 

Here’s Associate Professor Jon Wardle from the University of Technology Sydney:

“The alkaline diet it just is a good diet generally. The foods that are recommended to be avoided are usually the foods that are either known to create inflammation or can be difficult to digest. Or have other issues that are associated with them. Or have certain proteins that are known to be allergenic. The alkaline foods tend to be micronutrient-rich foods as well. I think even if you look beyond the acidic and alkaline thing it's just a good diet in general. Conceptually, it may not be the alkaline nature of those foods that's actually creating the good health. But I think to dismiss the fact that this diet seems to be helpful, and certainly in clinical practice it's very, very helpful, just because it's got a funny name or a funny way of explaining it, I think can be a bit short-sighted. You're missing the forest for the trees.”

When researching and writing my book, ‘Gut Instinct’, I found the alkaline diet was heavily criticised and is often categorised as pseudo-medicine and quackery.

As discussed earlier, the main objection seems to be the mechanism by which naturopaths hypothesised (over 100 years ago) by which the diet works. That is, eating alkaline foods to alkalinise the body is a myth, because the body’s pH levels are tightly regulated. Therefore diet cannot have any impact on the body’s alkalinity.

While naturopath Associate Professor Jon Wardle says the idea of testing your urine for alkalinity and measuring that as a factor of good health “is not probably ideal”, the notion of functionally describing foods as alkaline or acidic is conceptually very helpful:

“Just like in the medical textbooks you have blue blood that returns to the heart and red blood that comes out of the heart,” Dr Jon Wardle said. “The difference between arteries and veins. Doesn't mean that real blood is actually really blue, blood in arteries is actually always red. You don't have that colour change. But it's a conceptual tool that helps practitioners and patients understand the difference.”

Critics sometimes claim the alkaline diet was created by American naturopath Robert O Young, who gained widespread publicity through an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2007 which featured one of his clients, Kim Tinkham. Ms Tinkham believed Mr Young’s diet had cured her of breast cancer and she refused medical treatment. She died three years later.

Another common criticism of the alkaline diet is that, like the vegan diet, it is “extreme” because it is too difficult for people to stick to. This is based on the belief that people cannot give up meat and dairy foods.

However, veganism and plant-based foods are becoming mainstream, and there is enormous public interest in the role diet and nutrition play in keeping us healthy.

This can partly be attributed to the digital revolution, which is not only transforming industries and society, but also shining a light into the inner workings of our bodies and revealing the incredible complexity of our gut microbiome, and how this organ helps regulate our immune system.

In Episode 3 of my Raw: Mrs Snook’s Diet podcast, I discuss what we currently know about the human gut microbiome. But there is much we simply don’t know!

What I have noticed over the past five years in researching nutrition and health is that many over-simplified statements are often made about diet and disease, without an appreciation of the complexity involved in how our bodies react with the trillions of microbial organisms that live within us, and how we interact with our environment. Often such claims are made by cherry-picking data.

Mrs Snook was guilty of an oversimplified belief that her diet could help everyone and every illness.

Yet, it often seems that, like clichés, overarching statements about diets can sometimes reflect lived experience.

And perhaps the belief that the alkaline diet can help prevent some cancers and other conditions is one such over-simplification that may yet still carry a kernel of truth.


Greta Puls