At times it can feel challenging and frustrating to fight for evidence-based nutrition in a society which is full of the nutritional pseudoscience (see here for more info on this). But I wanted to end the year on a high by reflecting on what I feel were some of the biggest nutrition wins of 2017, most of which centres around the decline of ‘the alkaline diet’.
What is the Alkaline Diet?
Those who promote this diet claim that eating more so-called ‘alkaline forming foods’ and less so-called ‘acid forming foods’ can alter the pH of our blood and promote better health. Of course this is a load of nutribollox as the body has a clever mechanism called homeostasis which keeps the pH of our blood between about 7.35 and 7.45, as otherwise we would become unwell and develop acidosis or alkolosis (see here for more information about this).
What’s the Harm?
One of the reasons the alkaline diet can be so harmful is because it is often promoted as a cure for cancer.
This can encourage some people to use the alkaline diet in the place of established cancer treatments which can have devastating consequences. Examples of this include the heartbreaking stories of Naima Houder-Mohammed and Kim Tinkham.
Not only does this diet take advantage of the trust of those in a vulnerable position, but it can also take financial advantage as there are a raft of products available connected to this diet including: books, website subscriptions, supplements, food packages and alkaline drinks. There are even ‘water ionisers’ available which claim to ‘alkalize your water’ which can cost up to $4000! It has also been reported that those receiving individual treatment using the alkaline diet at Robert O Young’s ranch (more about him later) have been quoted $3000 per day!
What Does the Evidence Say?
Evidence is mounting that the alkaline diet does not live up to its extreme claims.
For example, this recent systematic review by Fenton and Huang concluded that: “promotion of alkaline diet and alkaline water to the public for cancer prevention or treatment is not justified”. A review of the evidence from PEN also reports that “there is no evidence to support that an alkaline diet may prevent or cure cancer” or that it has any impact on: bone health, obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, yeast overgrowth or cellulite.
Despite this lack of evidence many celebrities endorse the alkaline diet. If you saw my recent formula for a fad diet video, the alkaline diet can be perfectly slotted in as a classic example of a fad diet!
What Happened in 2017?
Robert O Young, who is known as the ‘father of the alkaine diet’, was jailed for 5 months in June for illegally treating cancer patients at his ranch.
Robert O Young had also previously been convicted twice due to practicing medicine without a license.
In September Belle Gibson (health blogger and founder of ‘The Whole Pantry’ app) was fined 410,000 Australian Dollars.
Belle Gibson famously claimed that she was treating her terminal brain cancer with alternative therapies including the alkaline diet, however it emerged that she never had cancer to begin with. Although the fine was due to false claims that proceeds would be given to charities rather than the damaging effect of her nutritional messages, it did raise more awareness about her dangerous nutritional messages.
This also adds to the fine of 30,000 Australian Dollars which Penguin Books received in 2016 for publishing her book without fact-checking this.
Furthermore, as a result of this Penguin have agreed to improve education and training for its staff about risks in books related to health claims, and any claims about natural therapies will have to be accompanied by a prominent warning notice.
As with many people who promote pseudoscientific ‘cures’, I suspect that Robert O Young and Belle Gibson may have believed that they were helping people in some way; although they are likely to have had a variety of motivations. Therefore I don’t resent them as individuals, but I do resent the harmful messages which they spread.
These court cases were a triumph as they send out a strong statement that it is not acceptable to spread harmful and non evidence-based messages.
Another win for science against the alkaline diet came in October when the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned an advertisement for ADrop (one of the so-called ‘water ionisers’ as mentioned above) which claimed to “improve your circulation” in the context of treating Diabetes.
The backlash against the alkaline diet this year was also associated with the decline of the ‘clean eating’ trend (hallelujah!).
This included the statement released by the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) in April which announced that the increase in bone fracture rates in young people is related to diets which exclude dairy (such as clean eating and the alkaline diet). NOS later clarified that sufficient calcium can be obtained from non dairy sources such as “fortified soya products, pulses, nuts, seeds and fortified white bread” (see here). Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth with Giles Yeo and Clean Eating’s Dirty Secret with Grace Victory were two recent excellent documentaries which explore the downfalls of clean eating, including the dangers of the alkaline diet.
In a similar retaliation against diets which claim to cure cancer, in May of this year a nutritional therapist called Patricia Daly was legally required to remove claims from her website which were found to be in violation of the code of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI).
Daly falsely claimed that a ketogenic diet can “weaken” cancer.
If you are interested in evidence-based clinical uses for low carb and ketogenic diets then check out this post.
The Bottom Line:
Although fad diets will re-emerge in various forms, the fact that the alkaline diet has been publicly rejected due to a lack of evidence and the potential for real harm is a big win for evidence-based nutrition and for science in general. I’m excited to see what 2018 has in store for the world of nutrition!