Australian designer, model and mum Elle Macpherson credits this approach with transforming her health and getting “the body” back on track, but how does the diet actually work? Laura Bond finds out
Two years ago, Elle Macpherson sat down with nutritional doctor Dr Simone Laubscher, who recalls that “she cried”. The model and mum’s seemingly healthy diet – no red meat, no alcohol and three litres of water daily, as well as numerous supplements – wasn’t working anymore. She was fed up with gaining weight and feeling bad, and she needed help.
“I realise now that we can easily get into a rut of doing the same thing, expecting different results,” Macpherson says. Laubscher introduced her to the idea of an alkaline diet, which marked a turning point in her health. “I noticed changes in just two weeks: I had more vitality, my skin wasn’t dry, I stopped craving sugar, my mood stabilised, everything became more balanced. A welcome by-product was losing weight around my middle.”
Two years on, she credits this dietary approach – which advocates an 80/20 ratio of alkaline to acid foods to create the optimal pH balance for good health – with helping to maintain her knockout figure at the age of 50.
The acid-alkaline effect
The theory is that a high-acid diet creates a breeding ground for disease and leads to poor health. “If you’re getting aching joints, gaining weight, craving carbs or sugar, or you have brain fog, then you’re running too acidic,” Laubscher says.
Dr Stephan Domenig, author of the “mindful eating plan” The Alkaline Cure (Modern Books), says the alkaline diet is “the opposite” of a typical western diet. It’s based on the idea that optimal health comes from balancing the body’s pH by eating more fresh veg and fruit, as well as certain legumes, grains and nuts.
“Many people start the day with coffee followed by toast and jam, cake for morning tea, then meat and a tiny amount of veg for dinner – all of these are acid-forming,” Domenig says, adding that a high-acid diet can lead to constipation and bloating, a lack of energy, weight problems, ageing and gum disease.
Whether or not the diet is necessary or even has an affect on the body is a point of much contention in the medical world, however, an increasing number of health experts are touting its benefits. Dr Joseph Pizzorno, a leading expert on integrative medicine in the US, says that “an overly acid-forming diet is a far more serious problem than commonly recognised”. His 2009 paper in the British Journal of Nutrition makes a case that diet-induced “acidosis” is a real phenomenon.
Macpherson is one of many celebrities to have “gone alkaline”; Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow are also devotees.
What’s on the menu
Kale, sprouts, spinach and other leafy greens feature prominently in the alkaline diet, along with ancient grains such as quinoa and amaranth, and healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil and coconut oil.
Foods to be avoided include acid-forming sugar, coffee, dairy and refined carbs (white bread, pasta, alcohol and animal protein). Surprisingly, some foods that have an acid taste – such as lemons and apple cider vinegar – actually have an alkalising effect on the body once they’re digested.
For Macpherson, switching to an alkaline diet meant having one espresso instead of three in the morning, eating only one protein meal (typically fish) a day, increasing her veg intake, and trading her various supplements for one super-green supplement. She also gets more sleep (a lack of shut-eye is said to affect our pH levels), and says there’s no sense of deprivation with the diet. “I eat three meals a day and two snacks,” she adds. “Some of my favourite foods are spinach, beetroot, goat’s cheese, pearl barley, kale, quinoa, pine nuts, halloumi, and I eat fish but no red meat or chicken.”
It’s not all about the food
Eating on the run rather than taking the time to eat properly can hinder your stomach’s ability to digest and upset its pH balance, Domenig says. He adds that lifestyle impacts such as stress, lack of sleep, pollution and too much exercise are also acid-forming.
Laubscher agrees: “We’re living in concrete jungles, with a mobile phone strapped to our ear 24/7 and toxins flooding the water and air – and everything that’s more toxic leads to more acidity.”
While a diet packed with fruits, veg and pulses can go a long way to alkalising our system, not everyone has the time or inclination for the chopping and juicing it requires. That’s why Laubscher and Macpherson decided to create The Super Elixir, a food-based alkalising supplement that contains greens, prebiotics, probiotics, Chinese herbs and medicinal mushrooms that can be consumed daily in juice or water.
“We made sure the ingredients were bio-live so they could be absorbed and were ‘useful’ to the body,” Macpherson says.
When choosing an alkalising supplement, Laubscher recommends going for an organic product. “If you take something synthetic, you pee out the vitamins,” she says, adding that this can cause urine to be fluorescent.
The quest for balance
The health benefits of the alkaline diet are still hotly debated. Chris Kresser, an integrative medicine practitioner and Paleo diet expert, says: “There’s no convincing evidence that an acid-forming diet has negative effects on healthy people.” His view is that good health comes from a diet that includes high-quality meat and fish and minimises refined carbohydrates.
Dr Garry Gordon, co-founder of the American College for Advancement in Medicine, believes that we need to be alkaline to stay healthy but doesn’t think cutting out meat is the answer: “The more fat you eat the longer you live, according to the latest research – there’s no doubt that animal fats are safer than refined carbohydrates.”
Even Domenig admits to enjoying a steak on occasion, and tells clients to aim for a diet that’s “two-thirds alkaline, one-third acidic”.
The physical and emotional improvements Macpherson has seen with the alkaline diet are proof that it works for her, and she says it still allows plenty of room for pleasure. “Eat vegetables, fruits and lean protein, a little bit of dark chocolate, if that’s what you like, and lots of water,” she adds. “Nothing too extreme – it’s all about balance.”
Vegetables: Broccoli, spinach, cabbage, fermented vegetables, cucumber, sprouts, wheatgrass and kale
Fruits: Berries, apples, banana, rockmelon, avocado, lemon, lime and mango
Nuts, seeds and oils: Almonds, pumpkin seeds, olive oil and coconut oil
Grains: Rice, amaranth, quinoa, rye and buckwheat
Drinks: Coconut water, herbal teas, almond milk, green smoothies, apple-cider vinegar and water