If you’re reading this, let’s assume you’re interested in osteoporosis. Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with osteopenia, and you’re looking for ways to keep your bones strong. Or maybe you’re caring for a parent with newly diagnosed osteoporosis, and need some baseline information.
Fact is, if you’re doing online research around bone loss, you’ve probably come across quite a few articles that mention "the low-acid diet." What is it, exactly? Is it one of those Atkins-type fads that’ll come and go? Or can a low-acid diet really help keep your bones strong?
Evidence is building that it can.
Let’s start with some background. The low-acid diet as a positive influence on bone health was first promoted over 40 years ago, with an article by two American doctors in The Lancet, an internationally renowned medical journal.
Since then, studies both seeming to prove and disprove the theory have been published. And, as usual, the public has been left wondering where the real truth lies.
Here’s the story, in its simplest form. I leave it to you to determine if a low-acid diet is worth following.
Your bones, which are about 70% calcium, do more than just hold your body together. They also regulate the pH balance of your blood, and thus of your body.
And what’s pH balance? Basically, how acidic something is. There’s acid at one end of the scale; "base" (alkalinity) at the other; and good balance right in between. Balance is what your body seeks; blood that’s neither too acidic, nor too alkaline.
So how do your bones regulate your blood’s pH balance? By releasing calcium (an alkaline/base) into the bloodstream when it becomes too acidic.
And what’s the result? Your blood returns to a healthy pH balance; but your bones lose some of their calcium. And when your bones lose calcium, they become weaker. You develop bone loss.
And eventually, over time - perhaps osteoporosis.
Why or how does your blood go out of balance, pH-wise? Well, mostly it’s due to what you eat. A diet high in foods that become acidic when metabolized can lead to your blood becoming overly acidic.
And what foods become most acidic when metabolized?
Meats, and hard cheeses: protein.
On the flip side, what foods become most alkaline when metabolized - and thus work to neutralize the acidity in your blood?
Fruits and vegetables.
So a diet lower in meat and hard cheese, and higher in fruits and vegetables, helps keep your blood from leaching calcium from your bones.
Basically true. Though there’s more to it than that. And this is where things start to get murky.
For one thing, consuming protein appears to improve your body’s ability to absorb calcium from what you eat. So perhaps eating meat isn’t so bad after all.
And dairy protein, aside from hard cheese, metabolizes to a neutral substance; neither too acidic, nor too alkaline. So certain types of protein - most dairy - are OK.
But the 2009 book Building Bone Vitality (by Amy Joy Lanou, an assistant professor of health and wellness at the University of North Carolina at Asheville), reviews a number of clinical trials concerned with dairy consumption and risk of bone fracture. And Lanou concludes that two thirds of these trials indicate that milk and other dairy products, as well as calcium supplements, don’t help prevent fractures.
Why? Because cultures consuming the most dairy products also consume the most animal protein. Which raises your blood’s acidity, and causes calcium loss from your bones.
Current governmental dietary guidelines suggest that consuming nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day lowers blood pressure, and reduces the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, stroke, and diabetes. And it would make sense that those same nine servings would increase your blood’s alkalinity, thus neutralizing the acidity created by eating meat.
Let’s not forget, we need protein to stay healthy. And those of us most likely to fall below the daily protein minimum are seniors - also those most likely to develop osteoporosis.
Bottom line: be sure to eat enough protein - but don’t overdo it.
And eat nine servings daily of fruits and vegetables, to counteract any negative effects from the protein.
Is that following a low-acid diet? Not really.
But the effect is the same: maintaining your blood’s pH balance. And blood with a healthy pH balance keeps your bones from losing calcium, thus remaining strong and healthy.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.