Following a healthy diet full of nutrient-rich, unprocessed foods and reducing your intake of acid-forming foods can be a great way to help you make strides toward achieving optimal health. So what are acidic foods, and how can you limit your consumption of them? Let’s find out!
What Are Acidic Foods?
Your body maintains a tightly regulated pH level. This is a measure of acidity and alkalinity in the fluids and tissues of the body, ranging from 0 to 14. A lower pH level is more acidic, and higher pH levels are considered more alkaline. While a pH of 7 is neutral, a slightly alkaline pH of 7.35–7.45 is considered optimal for human health.
Even minute changes in your body’s pH levels can cause a major impact on health. Alkalosis, which is caused by a high pH level, can cause symptoms like confusion, muscle twitching and nausea, while acidosis can result in fatigue, shallow breathing and headaches.
Luckily, your kidneys do most of the work in controlling your body’s pH by maintaining electrolyte levels and excreting/reabsorbing acidic and alkaline ions through the urine. However, eating a diet high in alkaline foods may come with some benefits to health.
Limiting your intake of acidic foods could help preserve bone density, prevent kidney stones and even decrease acid reflux symptoms.
15 Acidic Foods You Should Limit or Avoid
Here’s a quick list of acidic foods that you may want to limit. These foods are considered acid-forming, and their intake should be moderated on a healthy diet:
- Ultra-processed foods, such as frozen dinners, store-bought cakes and sodas
- Caffeinated drinks
- Processed cereals
- Artificial sweeteners
- Wheat products
- Cold cuts
Acidic Foods vs. Alkaline Foods
So how exactly is the list of acidic and alkaline food groups determined?
When you eat, the calories and nutrients are extracted from foods, and they are metabolized, leaving behind an ash residue. This ash residue is what determines the pH of your food, separating it into either an acid-forming or alkalinizing food.
Acid-forming foods typically include animal proteins like meats, eggs, poultry, fish and milk products, as well as grains and alcohol. Meanwhile, fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein foods are generally considered alkalinizing foods.
Side Effects and Dangers of Acidic Foods
1. Lower Bone Density
Some research has found that a diet rich in acid-forming foods could increase the amount of calcium lost through the urine, leading to a decline in bone density and even conditions like osteoporosis.
One study published in the journal Osteoporosis International out of Switzerland gave participants either an acidic or alkaline diet and showed that the acidic diet increased the amount of calcium excreted through the urine by 74 percent. (1) Another study showed that men with low intake of calcium and a diet high in acidic foods were more likely to have a lower bone mineral density. (2)
The pH of milk is slightly acidic, but there are many other sources of calcium available to promote better bone health. Vegetables like kale, broccoli and spinach are all good non-dairy calcium-rich foods.
2. Exacerbate Acid Reflux
Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, is a condition in which acid from the stomach flows back up to the esophagus, causing symptoms like heartburn and chest pain.
When working correctly, the esophagus has a band of muscles known as the sphincters that close to prevent this back flow and keep stomach acid in the stomach. However, with GERD, these esophageal sphincters are often weakened or damaged and unable to work efficiently.
Many acidic foods can contribute to acid reflux by relaxing the esophageal sphincter and allowing stomach acid to splash up. Caffeinated drinks, alcohol and high-fat foods, for instance, are common triggers for acid reflux.
Meanwhile, alkaline foods, such as vegetables and non-citrus fruits, are some of the best foods for acid reflux and can help reduce symptoms. Additionally, balancing your pH to combat low stomach acid, eating smaller meals and making healthy lifestyle changes can all alleviate acid reflux.
3. Can Cause Kidney Stones
The foods that you eat can have a big effect on the pH of your urine. When you eat more acidic foods, the pH of your urine is more likely to be acidic. Eating lots of non-acid foods, on the other hand, is more likely to result in an alkaline pH.
Having an acidic pH in your urine increases the risk of developing uric acid or cystine kidney stones, which are small mineral deposits that form in your kidneys and often must be surgically removed or passed through the urinary tract. (3)
When you have kidney stones, limiting your intake of acidic foods, such as animal proteins and soft drinks, may help. (4)
Additionally, drinking more water, reducing your salt intake and avoiding foods rich in oxalate, an antinutrient that can contribute to kidney stone formation, may also help reduce your risk.
4. Contribute to Chronic Pain
Some acidic foods that cause inflammation could also contribute to chronic pain. In fact, acidosis has been linked to symptoms like muscle spasms, headaches and chronic back pain.
A study out of Germany supplemented 82 participants with chronic back pain with alkaline minerals. After four weeks, symptoms were reduced in 92 percent of participants. (5) Further research showed that a whole-foods, plant-based diet similar to the alkaline diet could help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis. (6)
Following a heathy diet, getting in plenty of physical activity and incorporating some natural painkillers into your daily routine could also help alleviate chronic pain.
5. Alter Hormone Levels
Research published in the European Journal of Nutrition out of the University of California shows that acidosis could lead to decreased levels of human growth hormone, a hormone that is produced in the pituitary gland and is responsible for stimulating cell regeneration and growth. (7)
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation evaluated growth in a group of 10 children and infants with familial or idiopathic classic renal tubular acidosis. Alkali therapy was initiated at ages ranging from eight days to 9.5 years to evaluate the results on growth over four prolonged observation periods. Six of the patients had stunted growth at the start of the study, while two were too young to have stunted growth and the other two were nonacidotic.
The researchers found that with sustained alkali therapy: (8)
(a) each patient attained and maintained normal stature; (b) the mean height of the 10 patients increased from the 1.4+/-4 to the 37.0+/-33 percentile (of a normal age- and sex-matched population); (c) the mean height reached the 69th percentile in the eight patients whose heights could be analyzed according to parental prediction (Tanner technique); (d) the rate of growth increased two- to threefold, and normal heights were attained within 6 mo of initiating alkali therapy in the stunted infants and within 3 yr in the stunted children; (e) the height attained correlated inversely with the maximal possible duration of acidosis (before alkali therapy) only in those patients in whom alkali therapy was started after 6 mo of age, and not in those treated earlier.
In addition to promoting growth and proper development, growth hormone may also reduce heart disease risk factors, improve body composition and enhance memory and cognition. (9)
Are There Acidic Foods That Aren’t That Bad?
Not all acidic foods should be eliminated from the diet completely. Some acidic foods provide important nutrients and can be included in moderation as part of a healthy diet.
Most types of meat, for example, are considered acidic but supply many important vitamins and minerals to the diet and can also help you meet your daily protein needs to improve the health of your cells and muscles.
Walnuts are also considered an acidic food but are rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce inflammation and promote better health.
The key is to include these acidic foods as part of a healthy, whole food diet and in combination with plenty of fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins as well.
Better Alternatives/Acidic Foods Substitutes
Following a low-acid diet can be as simple as making a few simple substitutes and trading out foods that cause inflammation for foods that promote better health.
Here are a few ideas for easy exchanges you can make to reduce acidic foods symptoms:
- Swap out your soft drinks for alkaline water, and start your day with a refreshing green smoothie instead of coffee.
- Try including a plant-based protein, such as beans or legumes, in your meal in place of meat a few times per week.
- Sweeten up your foods using natural sweeteners like raw honey or maple syrup instead of artificial sweeteners.
- Limit your intake of processed foods and instead focus on mostly unprocessed whole foods.
- Opt for organic produce whenever possible, and look for grass-fed, free-range or wild-caught sources of beef, poultry and seafood.
Healthier Acidic Foods Recipes
Ready to revamp your recipe collection and start improving your health? They key is to look for recipes that are made up of mostly alkaline foods like fruits and vegetables with minimal amounts of acidic foods. Here are some recipes that you can try at home:
- Salmon Kale Salad
- Quick & Easy Pesto Chicken
- Berry Oat Breakfast Smoothie
- Apple Walnut Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Who Should Avoid Acidic Foods?
While everyone can benefit from limiting intake of acidic foods, it may have a greater effect on some people. If you’re prone to developing kidney stones, for instance, eating highly acidic foods could exacerbate your symptoms.
Those with acid reflux may also want to limit acidic foods, including some acidic fruits that have been known to trigger symptoms, such as tomatoes, lemons and limes. If you have acid reflux, it’s best to fill your diet with foods that keep stomach acid at bay, like vegetables, healthy fats, and anti-inflammatory herbs and spices.
Additionally, if you find that eating acidic foods triggers any adverse symptoms for you, you may want to limit your intake.
Who Can Eat Acidic Foods and How Much?
If you don’t have any of the conditions listed above, it’s still a good idea to consider limiting your intake of acidic foods. However, you don’t need to cut all of them out of your diet completely.
Of course, it’s best to completely eliminate certain foods like artificial sweeteners, processed foods and cold cuts, but other acidic foods provide important nutrients and come with health benefits. Meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and walnuts, for instance, are all acidic foods that can fit into a healthy diet in moderation.
Aim for whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins to make up the majority of your diet. Then, feel free to include small amounts of these acidic foods to help balance your pH, round out your diet and get the nutrients you need.
What Acidic Foods Do to the Body
Maintaining regular pH levels is critical to health. Eating too many acidic foods may alter hormone levels, contribute to chronic pain and even weaken the bones. It can also lower the pH of your urine, which may result in the development of certain types of kidney stones, and certain types of acidic foods could trigger symptoms of acid reflux.
Not all acidic foods should be avoided entirely. In fact, some of these foods actually come with a pretty impressive set of nutrients and can be part of a healthy diet. Achieving a well-rounded, balanced diet is the key, and you should focus on including more alkaline foods like fruits and vegetables instead of limiting acids from health-promoting whole foods like meats.
Instead of meticulously limiting or avoiding certain foods, concentrate on filling your diet with mostly unprocessed, whole foods and you’ll make strides toward better health.
Final Thoughts on Acidic Foods
Acidic foods are foods with a low pH that can decrease the pH of the urine and may contribute to kidney stones, low bone density, acid reflux, chronic pain and altered hormone levels. Some acidic foods are healthy and OK to include as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Aim for minimal amounts of processed foods and include plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole foods in your diet to help achieve better health.
However, in order to balance your pH, you may to limit or avoid these 15 acidic foods:
- Ultra-processed foods, such as frozen dinners, store-bought cakes and sodas
- Caffeinated drinks
- Processed cereals
- Artificial sweeteners
- Wheat products
- Cold cuts
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