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The alkaline diet consists of various foods, defined as alkaline or acidic, that allegedly will bring the pH of the blood to a level of slight alkalinity (7.35-7.45), a level which your body's homeostatic mechanisms will achieve regardless of the alkalinity of your diet. The alkaline diet gurus believe that an alkaline diet will put less stress on the body's natural homeostatic mechanisms and that this is essential to good health.
Some proponents of the diet believe that it can prevent and cure cancer. One of the better-known proponents of this diet as a treatment for cancer is Robert O. Young, who treated Kim Tinkham for breast cancer until she died (I should say he 'advised' rather than 'treated' Tinkham, since a naturopath who gets his degree from a correspondence school is not qualified to treat any disease). Tinkham was featured on the website cancerangel.com and became instantly famous when she appeared as a guest on Oprah Winfrey's television program. Tinkham was grilled by Oprah about being inspired by The Secret, a program Winfrey has promoted on her show, to reject chemotherapy and heal herself. (You can view the program here if it hasn't been taken down yet.) She eventually determines that the best way to heal herself is by listening to the advice of Robert O. Young, who recommends the alkaline diet. Of course, there is no way to know how long Tinkham would have lived had she had chemotherapy and removal of part of one of her breasts, treatments recommended by her medical doctors. What we do know is that an intelligent woman with an apparently strong desire to live chose the advice of a rather dubious individual over the advice of her physician. Apparently, Tinkham discovered Young by doing "research" on the Internet. At one point in her "treatment" by Young, he claimed he had reversed her cancer.
That Tinkham, though intelligent, was given to wishful thinking and magical thinking is evidenced by her finding inspiration in The Secret, a derivative collection of platitudes that have inspired the hopeless and the desperate since its origins in the New Thought movement of the 19th century. There are some obvious facts about the alkaline diet that should make one skeptical of the many claims made for it by Robert O. Young and others. There are also some things about Robert O. Young that apparently didn't awaken Tinkham's crap detector. (See the entry on Robert O. Young for more information about this dubious character.)
Despite the fact that there are no human studies supporting alkaline diets for the prevention or treatment of cancer, the diet is popular among some who think natural cures should always be chosen over chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. Some might be persuaded of the plausibility of the alkaline diet as a cancer cure by the fact that lab studies have shown that some cancer cells grow faster in an acidic solution and some chemotherapy drugs become more effective if the area around a tumor cell is altered to be more alkaline.* The problem is that there is no guarantee that what works in vitro will work in vivo. In any case, the alkaline diet isn't going to work because it won't have a significant effect on the alkalinity or acidity of cells.
The first clue that this diet would be worthless as a cancer treatment is the general principle it advocates: dietary modification can change the acidity of the blood. It's not true that the acidity of the body can be changed significantly by diet. Whatever food you eat passes through your stomach, which is highly acidic (pH between 1.5 and 3.5), making it an ideal environment for pepsin, the main digestive enzyme, to break down food. Stomach acid pH levels can be affected by the quantity of food you eat, infection, and stress. Eating foods designated acidic or alkaline is irrelevant to affecting pH in the stomach.* Eating acidic or alkaline foods is also irrelevant to affecting the pH of blood cells, despite what Robert O. Young claims. "Homeostatic mechanisms keep the acidity of the blood stream within a narrow range."* Different foods do, however, affect the pH of urine, which is confined to the bladder.
Alkaline diet promoters divide foods into two types depending on the type of "ash" produced as a byproduct of eating the food. Some foods produce an alkaline byproduct (e.g., fresh fruit and raw vegetables) and some produce an acidic byproduct (e.g., animal products, whole grains, beans, and seeds). These byproducts have nothing to do with the pH of blood either in the veins or the arteries, which, by the way, have different pH levels (venous blood is more acidic than arterial blood*). The reason for dividing foods into alkaline and acidic is the belief that food affects the pH of blood cells and that maintaining slightly alkaline blood is essential to good health, fighting cancer, being energetic, preventing allergies, ad nauseam. This is believed despite the fact that food doesn't significantly affect the pH of either venous or arterial blood.
If this diet is based on a false principle, why is it so popular? Some idea of why the diet is attractive to some people who have been diagnosed with cancer may be revealed by reading testimonials like the following one (from another of Robert O. Young's admirers, inspired not by The Secret though, but by another New Thought acolyte, Tony Robbins):
In September, I had blood in my urine again. This time, there were large blood clots in my urine and the bleeding carried on for days. I also felt some strange, vibrating sensations in my midsection. I called my doctor, who recommended me to a urologist. He booked me in for a cystoscopy, to look inside my bladder. I was put to sleep for the procedure, which lasted less than 30 minutes. A few minutes after I woke up, my urologist came to see me and told me that he had found two small tumours in my bladder and that he thought they was cancerous. The histology report confirmed his suspicions. I had grade 3, stage 1 (G3Pt1) bladder cancer at the age of 36…
Lying in hospital, I remembered a Tony Robbins seminar I had attended years ago, in which he talked about his "Living Health" program and that living healthily will allow our bodies to heal themselves. I promised myself that I would clean up my act and start living healthily.
The day I came home, I ordered many health and nutrition books online. In reading the books, some of what I read made sense, but there were so many conflicting opinions between the equally qualified authors; I became confused and disheartened. While listening to one of Tony Robbins’ audio programs, he talked about the havoc that excess acidity causes in our bodies and how we could become and remain healthy by adopting an alkaline-rich diet and lifestyle. He mentioned Dr Robert Young as one of the experts in this field.
I immediately ordered and read all of Dr Robert Young’s books, including “The pH Miracle”. What he had to say made total sense to me. It was totally in line with my belief that nature (or God) has provided us with everything we need to stay healthy and heal ourselves. I decided there and then that I would follow the pH Miracle program and heal myself.
The man who wrote the above testimonial put it on a web journal to document his progress: www.stopdoingcancer.com. The link is now dead and the last posting recorded by the Wayback Machine is for 11 June 2008. The journal was started at the end of 2006 or early 2007. In his first post, the author says that he had been treated for bladder cancer for several years and "nothing worked," which I take to mean the cancer was still present after several years of chemo and some surgery. He says that he "allowed the doctors to cut me and inject all sorts of poisons into me." He also says that when his medical team suggested "radical, life-changing surgery," he decided to "take my health into my own hands."
Both the woman who hadn't used any scientific medicine to treat her cancer and the man who did but wasn't cured found the idea of being in control of their own health stronger than the idea of submitting passively to a treatment devised by practitioners of scientific medicine. Yet, both also submitted themselves to the speculative ideas of a dubious character, and deceived themselves into thinking they were taking action that would save their lives. I understand why the man who was not cured after several years of treatment by scientific medicine would not accept his fate but would grasp at anything that appealed to his belief system. I have a difficult time, however, understanding why an intelligent woman would reject scientific medicine altogether when her life was at stake. Understanding such behavior is beyond my pay grade, as they say, though I don't think we should assume that just because a person is intelligent, her beliefs are rational. Something about Young and his message appealed to her. In my view, there is nothing appealing about either Robert O. Young or the alkaline diet he treats cancer patients with. Maybe it was fear that motivated her. Oprah asked her if it was fear of losing her breast that led her to reject surgery and chemotherapy and Tinkham denied that that had anything to do with her decision. For now, I think we'll just have to leave it an open question as to why Kim Tinkham did what she did.
Young and his wife Shelley Redford Young (who is listed as co-author of his pH Miracle books) bases his notions about alkaline nutrition on the idea of pleomorphism as expressed in the writings of Antoine Bechamp (1822-1895) and Gunter Enderlein (1872-1968). They claim that "acidification and overgrowth of negative microforms in the body are the root cause of every symptom, illness and disease." This notion is unfounded and was abandoned by the scientific community long ago.*
The Youngs promote a diet rich in vegetables, low-sugar fruits, and taking various supplements and devices for detoxing the body and "ionizing" drinking water that they happen to sell. They recommend avoiding sugar, red meat, shellfish, eggs, dairy products, processed and refined foods, stored grains, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, coffee, chocolate, and sodas, not because these foods are harmful in themselves, but because they interfere with the body's ability to eliminate excess acidity. However, there is no biological function that works to "eliminate excess acidity." The expression is meaningless. Furthermore, their idea that accumulating excessive acid in the blood, whatever that might mean, will result in the body becoming sick and decomposing is another fanciful idea the Youngs seem to have pulled out of thin air.
The Youngs make the appeal to the alkaline diet attractive by making many unfounded claims about bodies that are "too acidic." Such bodies, says Young, produce weight gain, water retention, high cholesterol, calcium stones, and tumors. These disorders, he claims, are life-saving mechanisms that the over-acidic body develops to fight off excessive acid. Again, this idea is purely fanciful and has no backing in the scientific literature.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., an expert on health, nutrition, and sports medicine, says: "If you hear someone say that your body is too acidic and you should use their product to make it more alkaline, you would be wise not to believe anything else the person tells you." He goes on to say:
Anyone who tells you that certain foods or supplements make your stomach or blood acidic does not understand nutrition.
You should not believe that it matters whether foods are acidic or alkaline, because no foods change the acidity of anything in your body except your urine. Your stomach is so acidic that no food can change its acidity. Citrus fruits, vinegar, and vitamins such as ascorbic acid or folic acid do not change the acidity of your stomach or your bloodstream. An entire bottle of calcium pills or antacids would not change the acidity of your stomach for more than a few minutes.
All foods that leave your stomach are acidic. Then they enter your intestines where secretions from your pancreas neutralize the stomach acids. So no matter what you eat, the food in the stomach is acidic and the food in the intestines is alkaline.
You cannot change the acidity of any part of your body except your urine. Your bloodstream and organs control acidity in a very narrow range. Anything that changed acidity in your body would make you very sick and could even kill you. (Mirkin 2003)
In conclusion, the alkaline diet will have no significant effect on the pH of a person's blood. So, even if the Youngs were right about blood pH being the key to health, which they aren't, the alkaline diet wouldn't be the key to health, much less of any value in treating cancer.
articles and books
Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work by Barry L. Beyerstein
I'd like to offer an eighth reason to Barry's list: Ignorance of the many failures of the therapy. Alternative healers don't keep records of their failures. The patients who never return, either because they realized the treatment was worthless or they died, are not reported. Dead patients don't make good anecdotes.
Social and judgmental biases that make inert treatments seem to work by Barry L. Beyerstein
Why Health Professionals Become Quacks by William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.
Quack Victim Kim Tinkham Dies of Breast Cancer at Anaximperator blog: Blogging against alternative cancer treatments
Last updated 05-Nov-2015