Welcome to Wellness Lies, our list of the most pervasive misfires in the effort to feel and look better. We asked the experts and consulted the best science on all the questions you have about each of these wellness fads. Read the whole list and share with your most misinformed friends and family members.
Last month, John Wall, point guard for the Washington Wizards, gave a routine interview that garnered more than usual attention on social media. He wore a sweatshirt that read, "Yo boyfriend can't check me" and held a bottle of Essentia water. Even more than his sweatshirt's claim, his choice in post-game water endorsement exuded a confidence worth exploring.
Essentia, one of many brands of alkaline water on the market today, capitalizes on the "alkaline diet" trend, a medically questionable concept where the body's pH is regulated by food consumption. Alkaline water is treated to have a higher pH, and technically, be less acidic than tap or bottled water.
The founder of the alkaline diet was arrested this year, facing three years in prison for practicing medicine without a license. However, the trend is still pervasive in popular (and sometimes not substantially credible) health-and-wellness sites, such as Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop. And alkaline water brands themselves, which either sell bottles or expensive water treatment systems, claim the product treats a number of ailments, from depression to cancer.
John Wall is not the only athlete—or even the only NBA player—tacitly or explicitly endorsing alkaline water. Other proponents include San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard, who in GQ advises kids trying to make it to the NBA to drink alkaline water. The Milwaukee Bucks' Jason Terry swears by Eternal Water, another alkaline brand, to help him hydrate. Yet another brand, Kangen Water, states on their site the entire US ski team drank alkaline water, and used a Kangen water ionizing machine to help with their recovery for the winter Olympics.
Alkaline water is sold everywhere from Whole Foods to Walmart (these brands are clearly equal opportunity pushers). Endorsements from people within the companies are also ubiquitous. Finding an actual doctor to say something positive about alkaline water, however, is a little trickier.
"The whole notion of alkalization was a food fad based on, as often these things are, a lot of faulty logic. Logic doesn't apply in biology, other than to generate hypotheses. These must be tested properly before you can determine whether your logic is correct," says David Seres, director of clinical nutrition and clinical ethicist at Columbia University Medical Center.
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While the alkaline diet promotes some habits that are healthy, like eating spinach and avoiding soda, they have little to do with actual alkalinity. "The body has very effective methods of regulating the pH in your blood. What you eat will not affect your blood pH, unless you're sick or have a bad kidney," says Marc Hellerstein, internist, nutritionist and professor of nutritional science and toxicology at University of California, Berkeley.
Even if you decided changing your body's alkalinity was good, slightly modified water would not be an effective way to go about it. "[Drinking alkaline water] will have no effect on neutralizing acid in the body, except in the urine. You would practically have to stop breathing before your pH really changes much," Seres tells me. "The kidneys and the lungs really are what control the body's pH. They're exquisitely good at it; you're not going to alter your body's pH based on your intake. Your organs will adjust."
There haven't been any major studies linking alkaline water to improved athletic performance or long-term health, but it's apparently not completely useless. "There are medical reasons for which alkanization is used. There are kidney diseases in which the kidneys make too much acid. There are situations like interstitial cystitis, a chronic inflammation of the bladder, where alkaline ingestion may improve symptoms to a degree," Seres says.
But these benefits are far from proof the average person should drink it. "Short of [those reasons] there really is no evidence that alkalinization is a good thing," he says. Still, a lot of people swear by it. Could it be that alkaline water brands dangling the tantalizing possibility in front of wellness freaks—that there's a water out there that's better than water?
"If you're trying to drink water, I don't think there's a lot of improvement to be made. The main thing is that there aren't toxins or bacteria in it," Hellerstein says.
The lack of supporting evidence should make any potential alkaline water consumer skeptical. "There's no data—you can't find a proper study. If you don't have that, it's all he-said, she-said. So the best you can do is look at the numbers, and it doesn't add up," Hellerstein says, referring to the potential amount of pH change that could occur from drinking alkaline water. But if you're a brand willing to benefit from suggestible people's open minds and wallets, there's a market ripe for the taking.
Alkaline water, to a skeptic, is more of a multi-level marketing scheme than a straight up scam. One brand, Aqualiv, sells a water treatment system instead of actual bottled water. If you purchase their product, you can join an ambassador program, where strangers can come to your house to try your water, in exchange for a 15 percent referral fee if a sale is made. A global water ionizer distributor, Enagic, has an entire section dedicated to "The Power of Direct Marketing."
So basically, the alkaline diet's principles operate similar to simultaneously increasing your fiber intake and placing a rock under your pillow, then crediting the rock with your healthy bowel movements. Seres says, "Nutrition advice is unfortunately poorly regulated. Even people who are highly professional nutrition 'experts' are subject to filling the void when there's no real data, and opining based on what seems like a good idea."
Seres mentions a meta-study that shows the danger of this behavior. "When we observe a relationship between two things in nutrition and then finally go to test their cause and effect relationship, our conclusions based on the observation are more likely to be wrong than correct," he says.
On the flip side, neither Seres nor Hellerstein are particularly concerned about alkaline water consumption as a health risk. They both say it's just a waste of money, useless for the average healthy person, and lacks proper supporting studies.
For those intent on drinking it, you can still stick it the man and make it yourself. Seres suggests a DIY alternative to bottled products or expensive ionizers, since you can make water less acidic with baking soda. "Go buy a box of Arm & Hammer," he says. I'm guessing Gwyneth Paltrow isn't privy to the fact that her $900 water filter could be replaced with a two dollar box of A&H. She'll get there.
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