The Acid/Alkaline Food Myth.

I love food. I love the smell, the look, and most of all the eating! Perhaps even a little too much on the eating side. I also like to read about the science of food, and the science of digestion and metabolism.

We humans are basically a biological amalgamation of complex chemical processes that  let us do some really amazing things! Our cells are tiny factories that not only perform essential life processes – they can also manufacture their own replacements!

Different cells in our bodies are renewed at different rates. The cells in your lungs are replaced every 6-weeks, your taste-buds are renewed every 10-days. The cells in your bones average 10-years. Many of the cells in our bodies are less than 12 years old! Some cells – such as brain cells – are never renewed. And others such as the cells in our hearts are renewed very slowly.

This renewal process is what keeps us healthy and vigorous – and as long as the replication process does not have errors we will continue to thrive. When cells develop errors this can lead to a health crisis. The most common type of “cell error” is called cancer.

Now there are many theories on what causes cancer, and how cancer can be controlled, even repaired. And since we are bio-chemical factories driven by what we intake (food, water, air and god-knows what else!) – it makes sense what we eat and when we eat might be part of the solution (or problem)!

So we have theories of anti-oxidants, and flavonoids, and mega-dosing of this and that, and micro-dosing of other things. It is quite the mystical intra-relationship of  fact, fancy, and wishful-thinking. And of course there is also that other complicating factor of mind over matter – and how what we believe can actually change us! Placebo effect anyone?

So it is with interest that I have been reading the theories of acid-forming vs alkaline-forming foods, and the health impacts of these food groups. Basically, the theory propounds that eating certain foods will change our body pH levels. Acid-forming foods will increase our body acidity. Alkaline-forming foods will increase our body alkalinity.  And we need to remember that “acidity is bad” and “alkalinity is good”.

Now acid-forming and alkaline-forming is not the same as a food that is acidic or alkaline before it is consumed. This is because the digestion process breaks the food down into various chemical bits and bites – and those in turn may be utilized in other chemical reactions.

It would then seem to be common sense that food would impact our body acidity and alkalinity. Except it turns out that isn’t how our metabolic processes work. There is actually a very limited pH range within our bodies – and our bodies respond quickly to maintain the optimal pH balance. Basically our internal pH is maintained between 7.35 and 7.45 on the pH scale. In other words we are slightly alkaline. Or, as I like to think of it, we are all mildly base creatures on the inside.

The acidity-alkalinity concept also takes a knock when we stop and think about the actual digestion process. We eat food and it drops into our stomach where the food is broken down by a very powerful gastric acid bath (including natural hydrochloric acid). The acid your stomach will dissolve zinc. The pH level of gastric acid is 1.5 to 3.5 on the pH scale.

Some of the acid is neutralized by reacting with the food, and any remaining acidity is countered in the duodenum by a neutralization process that basically dumps sodium bicarbonate when high acid levels are detected. The gastric acid is basically converted into salt, carbon dioxide and water. As the digestion process moves down the intestines – the pH level climbs back to about 8.0.

I won’t get into the full details of absorption of nutrients – but basically the nutrients from the food are broken down into rather basic forms that our body can  absorb. This is an important part of how we maintain our bodies – as not everything can be digested and absorbed. What we do absorb has to be broken down and presented in a form that can cross through the intestines into our blood stream for transport where it is needed in our bodies. What this means is we do not absorb a steak – we absorb the nutrients that make up that steak. What cannot be absorbed is discarded as waste.

Basically the digestion process ensures our body pH levels stays within the acceptable range. However, and this is important to know, our excretions may have higher or lower pH levels depending on what our bodies are discarding as waste. The fact that urine may be more or less acidic after eating a specific food does not mean our body pH has been impacted. The same is true about saliva. The measured pH level of saliva will vary depending on what you last ate, and the bacteria in your mouth.

However – a diet high in acidic foods means we certainly will force our bodies to produce more neutralizing chemicals. This can place a strain on our digestive systems and make us feel tired. And a diet high in alkaline foods will reduce the efficacy of our stomach acids and our digestion process may be less efficient. This may mean undigested food makes it into the large intestines where the many bacteria that share our bodies have a feast – and produce various waste products of their own. Oh bloating is such fun!

The  acid-forming vs alkaline-forming food categories in the end do very little for our overall internal body pH balance (since other biological processes regulate those pH levels). However, the food categories are probably an effective diet aid simply because they do encourage healthy food choices.Really the acid-alkaline categories are not much different that the traditional food guide based on recommended daily servings of vegetables and fruits, grains and meats.

And in the end if the acid-forming vs alkaline forming food groupings make your choices easier and healthier – well that is a good thing! Just don’t pay attention to the mythology that goes along with the groupings!

Sociology? What a Waste of an Education!

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to listen to CBC radio when I drive. I like the mixture of arts, culture, politics, music and just general blather. Makes me feel like I am right up there on current events and in keeping up with what is “now”.

Recently, as I was driving, while listening to one of the phone-in shows on the “student protests in Quebec” I was struck by a sub-theme of some of the callers: What is the value of an education?

Maybe I should take  a couple of steps back and give the 30-second explanation of the student protest that have been happening in Quebec. Basically the Quebec government is trying to reduce their deficit – and so has proposed increasing the portion that students pay towards post-secondary education. The tuition increase proposal has generated a rather large back-lash from the students and other members of Quebec society that view education as an “obligation” of a just and democratic society. This is based on the ideals espoused by thinkers like Thomas Jefferson who said, “I know, [there is] no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of society, but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

Building off the thoughts of Jefferson, and others, the movement in Quebec has focused discussion on the value of “higher” education. And on who “pays” for that education. If an educated society is critical to a successful democracy – then should not that education be affordable and accessible to all members of society?  I would guess that probably a majority of our society will agree that some type of post-secondary education is important and even necessary. Where a major division seems to arise is the discussion on the “utility” of that education.

A sub-text of that discussion becomes “if society pays for an education – then society should decide what you choose to learn.” In other words – we as taxpayers must realize some return on our investment in your education. And as part of that return on investment, society should have an expectation that you will get a good job as a result of your education – and in turn pay taxes.

The danger here is we value education not for knowledge and for learning how to ask questions and for learning to critically think – but for the economic measurable it provides. Thus an “applied education” is the best type of higher education. While “applied education” is useful and often leads to employment, “applied education” tends not to be very creative or adaptable to change. On the flip side education that is focused on the “theoretical” tends to be highly adaptable and creative and not so immediately employable. (Yes those are both generalizations – however that is where the call-in show was headed…)

So getting back to the call-in show, and what has sparked my little ramble. One caller made this comment: ‘These protesters are lazy and need to get real jobs! Why should I pay for their education? That student you had on is studying sociology! My god – what is the point of sociology? That isn’t a real education! People just need to use their common sense and do something real with their lives.’ (Now that isn’t an exact quote as I was driving!)

The caller went on further dismissing Political Science and Anthropology as legitimate areas of study. Basically with the same point: it is an expensive education for something that most of society really does not care about. Those subjects are all theory and thinking – and have little application or utility in an economic sense. And really why study what is just “common sense”?

When he said “common sense” my brain went a-ha! In my experience of the world people who invoke “common sense” dislike social sciences because those disciplines dare to question “common sense.” In fact I would argue those disciplines not only question – they also dare to analyze and measure the utility of “common sense.”

I am not a Sociologist so my understanding of Sociology as a discipline may need to be refined. Sociology examines society using a number of empirical investigative and critical analysis techniques. Sociology attempts to develop an understanding of the way groups of humans interact and behave, and to gain an understanding of how social processes develop and evolve.

Common sense might say that an individual is poor because they are too lazy to get a good job. If that individual would only apply their abilities and talents they would be rewarded and would be a successful, productive member of society. Sociology would examine why that individual is living in poverty, look at how society is helping or hindering; take time to examine the laws, culture, institutions, and other parts of society that surround that individual.  And that data may suggest “social policy” that we can enact to help people out of poverty.

People that want us to rely on “common sense” dislike sociology because sociology dares to measure what “common sense” says is the truth. Sometimes sociology will affirm “common sense” – to which the response will be “what a waste of time and money to learn what we already knew was true.” Or worse it will contradict “common sense” – to which the response is “what a waste of time and money to come up with a flawed study!”

At the end of this ramble I am not certain I have any conclusions to offer. Simply my observations. I believe that higher education is an important part of a successful and fully functioning democratic society. Knowledge is power. And an important part of obtaining knowledge is knowing how to ask questions. If we only focus on “applied” knowledge we become focused on the “how” of the world – and we lose sight of the “why?”. And more importantly the “why not?”. I don’t want to be stuck in a world where the norm is: “I know what I know – don’t confuse me with the facts!”

And so I will leave you the reader with one interesting thought. In a North American consumer society that is focused on economic utility – we rely on a field of study called Economics. Economics it seems is an off-shoot of Sociology with many common roots and connections. So what is the point of Sociology? One might as well ask what is the point of thinking?


English: the log of the political part the com...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)