Increasingly, we hear the word “balance” being touted as an ideal we should be striving for. Work versus play, family time and me time, exercise and nutrition. Have you ever thought to yourself “I went to the gym today so I deserve that double-grande iced coffee with just a dash of whipped cream”? While that reward can seem like the perfect way to keep the balance, it just might be tipping the scale in the wrong direction. The acid-alkaline balance is one that we don’t hear as much about yet is one that all of us, and perhaps athletes in particular, should be paying closer attention to.
What exactly is meant by an acid-alkaline balance? Essentially, our bodies must maintain a slightly alkaline pH balance in order to function properly. In fact, it is vital to our survival. The pH of our blood must remain constant in the narrow range between 7.35 and 7.45. Homeostasis (or balance) is maintained through a variety of mechanisms in our bodies including breathing and kidney function. Blood proteins and alkaline salts in the blood will also work to reduce acidity. Over the long term, if acidity persists, we will draw on minerals from our bones and proteins from muscle tissues to minimize this load. An acidic body is at greater risk of inflammation, depressed immunity, accelerated aging and a host of degenerative illnesses including cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis and diabetes. Anything that deprives our body of oxygen can contribute to a state of acidosis. Stress, smoking, alcohol, an acid-inducing diet and excess exercise all play a role.
Anyone who exercises regularly at a relatively high intensity may be at risk of tipping the scale further towards an imbalance, due to the acidic by-products of exercise. The last thing an athlete wants is for his own body to break down muscle (to extract nitrogen) or bone tissue (for calcium) in order to neutralize a state of metabolic acidosis. Over time, this will lead to decreased physical energy and may result in diminished athletic performance or injuries such as stress fractures.
Athletes may want to consider that one of the goals of refueling after prolonged or intense training sessions should be to bring bodily fluids back into an alkaline state. Ingesting adequate carbs and proteins is one part of the equation. But in order to prevent the catabolism of tissues, alkalinity of bodily fluids must also be restored.
We know that what we put into our bodies must have a profound effect. The dairy- and grain-based refined diet that has become so commonplace in North America has a great deal to do with our acidic states today. Experts agree that to achieve a state of balance, we should be eating approximately 70-75% alkalinizing foods and 25-30% acidifying foods.
So which foods are which? It is easy to conclude that oranges and lemons are so acidic that they must have a negative effect. However, foods are classified not by their intrinsic nature or how they taste to us but rather based on the effect they have in our body once they are digested. What it boils down to whether that food contributes hydrogen ions to the body (making it acidic) or removes them (making it more alkaline). Once metabolized, foods that leave minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium in the body are considered alkalinizing. Research has shown that the only foods that have this net alkalinizing effect are, essentially, fruits and vegetables.
Acidifying foods you may wish to limit include the obvious ones like sugar, cheese and red meat but also most grains (rice, wheat, rye, oats), legumes, most nuts, cranberries, plums, corn, oils, poultry and fish. Your mom was right: eat more vegetables! Aim to fill three-quarters of your plate with fresh or lightly steamed veggies. You can balance the acidifying elements of your diet with generous servings of leafy greens, sweet potatoes, peppers, broccoli, asparagus, carrots and other vegetables. Don’t forget herbs like parsley, dill and rosemary; and all spices such as cinnamon, ginger and sea salt. Snack on fruits like watermelon, berries, apples, peaches, mangoes and, yes, oranges too.
Choosing more alkaline-enhancing foods will not only help you achieve balance, but also to reach health, vitality and peak performance.