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Balance is the key to a healthy life. And there’s new evidence that maintaining a normal acid-alkaline balance, also known as your body’s pH level, is vital to your health. But what does this mean and how do you achieve balance?

If you’ve forgotten your high school chemistry, pH stands for “potential of hydrogen.” A pH below 7 is acidic, and a pH above 7 is alkaline. The ideal blood pH is slightly alkaline, from 7.2 to 7.4. Even small alterations in pH can cause problems. For example, due to excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the pH of the ocean has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 and the coral is suffering. Minerals in the ocean and in your body are used as buffers to maintain optimal pH levels, so when acidity rises, minerals fall. In your body, they are pulled from your bones and muscles to balance your blood.

What you eat influences your body’s pH. It’s not whether the food you eat is acidic or alkaline, but how the food’s content of potassium, sodium, bicarbonate and chloride shift your body’s pH. The key is to eat sufficient foods with alkaline-forming minerals to offset the traditional sodium-heavy American diet of too many acid-producing foods. It may seem confusing that acidic tasting tomatoes and oranges actually promote an alkaline pH. Or that eggs or bread are acidic.

Here’s a simple guide: alkaline-yielding foods are all fresh vegetables and fruits. Acid-yielding foods are dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), eggs, meat, fish and seafood, poultry, grains (including breads and cereals), rice, legumes, nuts and sugars.

Why is an alkaline diet the buzz now? The food you eat is not the food of your ancestors. Following the agricultural revolution and then mass industrialization years, the food you eat has significantly less potassium, magnesium and chloride, along with more sodium. Normally, the kidneys maintain your electrolyte levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Too many acidic foods and these electrolytes are knocked off balance.

The ratio of potassium to sodium in most people’s diets has changed dramatically. Potassium used to outnumber sodium by 10:1, however now the ratio has dropped to 1:3. Today, on average, anyone eating the “Standard American Diet” consumes three times as much sodium as potassium.

When you eat too many foods that promote an acidic pH your bones are robbed of calcium and magnesium to provide an alkaline pH, and muscles are broken down to produce ammonia, which is strongly alkaline. You won’t notice that the body is breaking down bone and muscle right away. It takes years for the consequences to become apparent in the form of osteoporosis and the loss of muscle.

The good news is that you can eat to maintain a normal pH if you eat a 70-to-30 alkaline-to-acid foods ratio. An alkaline diet can help your live longer and healthier. Balancing the pH level of the fluids in your body, including your blood and urine, can help build bones and maintain muscle mass, decrease inflammation to improve cardiovascular health and offer protection against high cholesterol, high blood pressure, kidney stones, stroke, cancer and even memory loss.

Eat plenty of fresh fruits and veggies and reduce the amount of of animal protein, processed and high-sodium foods and sugars and you’ll be in balance. Not sure? You can test your pH by purchasing strips at your local health food store or pharmacy.