Acid vs. Alkaline Diets and Cancer

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The alkaline diet lies at the heart of the medical community’s ongoing debate over the influence that acidity and alkalinity have on the cause and spread of cancer. Proponents of the diet claim that cancer cells cannot survive in an alkaline environment. However, diet critics reject the theory behind it as unrealistic and potentially dangerous because it encourages the exclusion of many foods that are essential to balanced nutrition.

Case for Alkaline Diet

In “Cancer Diagnosed: What Now?” author Willem J. Serfontein makes his case for the alkaline diet as a weapon for fighting cancer. A former professor of chemical pathology at South Africa’s University of Pretoria, Serfontein suggests that no cancer therapy can ultimately succeed if it is not used in combination with an alkaline diet. He claims that major cancers cannot survive in an alkaline environment with an average pH of 7.8 or higher. Serfontein contends that the typical Western diet, which is high in the consumption of refined food products, is a bad cancer diet because its high levels of acidity literally feed cancer cells. He claims that an alkaline diet can halt the spread of cancer “better than any treatment.”

Warburg's Findings Cited

In “The Raw Food Lifestyle,” author Ruthann Russo, a holistic health counselor with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, cites the work of German physiologist Otto Warburg as a rationale for the alkaline diet. Warburg won the Nobel Prize in 1931 for his earlier discovery that cancer cells thrive in conditions where there is little or no oxygen. Russo points out that acidic foods are extremely low in oxygen, indicating that the avoidance of acidity should be a primary objective of those who have cancer or who are seeking to minimize the odds of getting cancer.

Diet's Effects on pH Balance

Stephanie Vangsness, a registered dietitian with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, argues that the proponents of the alkaline diet overlook some of the realities about human pH balance. In an article for Aetna’s InteliHealth website, Vangsness points out that the human body has an elaborate system of checks and balances to ensure that overall pH balance is maintained within a healthy and normal range between 7.35 and 7.45. This system makes it “nearly impossible to achieve and maintain a high-alkaline pH for a prolonged period of time.” Moreover, argues Vangsness, strict adherence to an alkaline diet excludes or sharply restricts several food groups, including beans and legumes, dairy and fats and oils, all of which are important in the maintenance of a balanced diet.

Cancer Creates Acidity

Barrie R. Cassileth and Gary Deng of the Integrative Medicine Service at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center attack the central theory behind the alkaline diet. In the book “Principles and Practice of Gastrointestinal Oncology,” the authors point out that it’s the rapid growth of cancer cells that creates an acidic environment and not an acidic environment that creates cancer. Like Vangsness, they explain that the body’s built-in system of pH balance maintenance ultimately means that eating more alkaline foods does little to alter pH levels. In summary, they suggest that “such extreme dietary plans do more harm than good for cancer patients.”