As athletes, we are quite accustomed to fastidiously nurturing our bodies. From sculpting the external to feeding the internal, we are always focusing on ways to achieve optimal health. We juggle and calculate protein intake, carbohydrates and good fats, thinking we are doing the right thing for our bodies. However, recent research indicates we may be missing a key component in balancing this crucial equation.
Aside from muscles, bones and organs, the human body comprises an average of 50%-60% water, or approximately 45 quarts. Water is considered to be a neutral fluid, with a pH designation of 7. The technical definition of pH is the measure of activity of the hydrogen ion (H+), and is reported as the reciprocal of the logarithm of the hydrogen ion activity. Therefore, water with a pH of 7 contains 10-7 moles per liter of hydrogen ions. A pH value below 7 indicates an acidic environment, whereas a value over 7 defines an alkaline, or basic, environment. Striking a delicate pH balance within our bodies can be an important indicator of overall health. Indeed, many biochemists and physiologists have recently recognized that the acid-alkaline ratio is among the most important aspects of a balanced, healthy body. In the words of Dr. Louis Pasteur, “The germ is nothing, the inner terrain is everything.”
How Did We End Up Here?
Various changes within the body can also throw off the delicate pH balance, which can cause a surge of acidity, the result of which is often metabolic acidosis. Various disorders and diseases can be hidden culprits; stomach ulcers, obesity, kidney disease, liver problems, anorexia, adrenal disorders, diabetes, and fever can rob the body of its alkaline environment.
The protein sources we consume as part of the typical American diet have a very powerful effect on the pH of our internal environment. Animal protein sources, such as beef, venison, eggs, chicken and turkey, are categorized as acidifying foods. Since the diet of most athletes tends to be higher in protein, this can become a very real issue. It is not that the acidifying foods are unhealthy; quite the contrary! The concern arises when the internal environment becomes too highly acidic, when tits pH drops well below 7.
Since a body tends to favor homeostasis, it will do whatever is necessary to preserve the balance required to thrive optimally. If protein consumption has created a significant pH imbalance toward the acidic level, the body compensates by “borrowing” minerals (calcium, potassium, sodium) from vital organs and bones in an effort to buffer and neutralize the acid. Over time, due to this strain, the body can actually suffer damage undetectable from the outside. Even mild acidosis can eventually lead to premature aging, joint pain, aching muscles, immune deficiencies, and acceleration of free radical damage. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (January 2001, Volume 73, No. 1, pp. 118-122), such borrowing of calcium in order to balance pH may also result in a decrease in bone density.
How Does Alkalinity Work?
When an alkaline environment is maintained in the body, the metabolic, we begin to “feel better” overall, yet may not know the reason. In a body whose internal landscape leans towards alkalinity, enzymatic, immunologic, and repair mechanisms function at their best. The acid-forming artifacts of stress and inflammation, as well as those from foods that are high in fat and animal protein, can only be effectively neutralized when sufficient mineral-buffering reserves are present. These buffering reserves come from alkaline-forming foods. We have the power to provide these minerals simply by altering the food choices we make. A diet that is predominantly alkaline-forming, therefore, is essential to the maintenance of sustained health.
Most vegetables and fruits contain significant proportions of alkaline-forming elements. It may come as a surprise to learn that, despite a pronounced acidic flavor, citrus fruits form alkaline residues once inside the body. This is because the organic acids, (citric, succinic, fumaric, and malic) when metabolized, yield water and alkalinizing bicarbonate, while producing energy (ATP) inside the cell.
In sharp contrast, foods containing large amounts of protein and fat provide an abundance of acid-forming elements. This can be a tricky and confusing path for many athletes seeking to modify their nutrient intake. Cow’s milk and related dairy products, for example, are acid forming, while cheeses derived from goat’s milk tend to yield less acid, due to a lower fat content. The one dairy product exception is clarified butter (also known as “ghee”), which contains alkalinizing short chain fats known as butyrates and caprylates. These substrates tend to promote healthy bacterial growth in the intestines, rendering the body better equipped to repair of the intestine wall. Such an internal landscape also suppresses any further growth of pathogens such as yeasts, if colonies happen to be present.
Train Hard, Eat Smarter
As one would expect, athletes in peak training are the most vulnerable to the effects of acidosis. Loss of bone mass, a decline in lean muscle tissue, and the reduction of naturally occurring growth hormones can be devastating to a body already undergoing extreme physical demands. The American Physiological Society published an article outlining a study on the effects of pH on cardiorespiratory and metabolic responses to exercise. The results were quite telling: compared to the control group: the subjects’ measurable levels of endurance were reduced when their bodies were placed in a state of acidosis.
Fruits and veggies are the cornerstone of an alkaline diet, and increasing consumption of these on a regular basis may facilitate the body’s ability to hold onto hard-earned muscle mass. We do tend to lose muscle as we age, but this is by no means unavoidable. A recent study found that older adults who consumed more foods that are metabolized into alkaline residues (mainly fruits and vegetables), and fewer foods that are metabolized into acidic residues (mainly proteins and refined grains), were able to retain more muscle mass. The effect was nearly enough to offset the 4.4- pound loss of lean tissue that older adults typically experience per decade. This, in turn, could have a significant adverse impact on strength, metabolism and risk of injury.
As with any meal plan, pursuing alkalinity becomes a lifestyle choice, and therefore need not be viewed as a “diet”. The question many clients and avid strength-training athletes often have is how to include sufficient amounts of protein to meet the demands of their developing lean muscle mass. One must spend a bit of time becoming educated, followed by proper diligent planning, especially at the grocery store! Plant-based protein sources may be new to many individuals, who often question their validity as part of a bodybuilding regimen. To address this, one needs to look no further than the Animal Kingdom. Some of the largest and strongest mammals on earth consume a plant-based, alkaline diet – cows, hippos, elephants, gorillas, and rhinos. These are powerful animals with a commanding presence, and they derive all of their protein from plant sources.
Basic Yet Delicious
How can we help our bodies strike the perfect balance between an acidic and an alkaline environment? It has been postulated that an ideal balance favors a meal plan comprised of 80% alkalizing foods, and the limiting of acidifying foods to 20%. This is not as difficult as one might imagine. Most alkalizing foods tend to be raw, unprocessed and whole. Raw, sprouted legumes such as lentils, beans and seeds, are superior sources of alkalizing proteins, as are chia seeds, hemp seeds or hemp hearts, quinoa, hummus and edamame. All of these foods are easily accessible at most large or specialty grocery stores. By complementing consumption with dark green leafy vegetables, which are high in chlorophyll, one can further enhance an internal alkaline environment. One can even go so far as to purchase alkaline water, pure water with a pH of 8.8.
Although the notion of maintaining a safe internal pH may be news to many athletes, the general idea of consuming more whole, unprocessed foods and many green leafy vegetables is a practice to which many athletes are already adhering. Keeping the body healthy at the cellular level can only lead to greater gains in overall wellbeing.
(Author’s note: Prior to writing this article, I began researching this topic in depth. When bodybuilding competitively, I consumed protein from poultry, eggs, fish, and supplements, to the tune of 150 grams/day. Given that I barely break the 3-digit barrier on the scale, that is a lot for a body to process! Last week I jumped off the cliff and am building my wings as I go “basic”! My protein consumption is now reduced to 75 – 80 grams/day, my sources being spelt, buckwheat, quinoa flakes and hummus, along with certain approved fish, and of course vegan protein powder shakes. Yes, there are now 2 jugs of alkaline water in our refrigerator, also! Relinquishing my beloved breakfast (daily,for the past decade) of oatmeal and eggs whites has been the most difficult; however, both of those foods are highly acidic in the body, so I can enjoy them just on special occasions! I feel good, and lifting heavy again in the gym feels great! Back to Basics!)
- N Rizzo, K Jaceldo-Siegl, J Sabate, G E Fraser. Nutrient Profiles of Vegetarian and Nonvegetarian Dietary Patterns. Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013 Dec;113(12):1610–1619.