When I saw the idea that an alkaline diet can cure cancer had started doing the rounds again, I thought; “Oh well, at least it’ll be quick and easy to address.” Yet, here I am with 17 tabs open on my browser, still trying to plumb the depths of the arguments involved…
Oh well, I bring these things upon myself!
I think I’ll start with poor Dr Otto Heinrich Warburg, whose name gets dragged into so many of these types of things.
Simply put, Dr Warburg was a genius. He was nominated for the Nobel prize a total of 51 times during his career. He won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1931:
for his discovery of the nature and mode of action of the respiratory enzyme.https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1931/summary/
This description, I think we can all agree, is wonderfully vague. Mind you, that might be because the specifics look like this:
His experiments were performed in vitro with excised pieces of tumors and showed that fermentation (anaerobic glucose breakdown to lactate) was preferred for growth rather than respiration (oxidative glucose breakdown) present in normal cells.https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-cancerbio-030419-033556
What this all boils down to, though, is that cancers produce a lot of acid. Therefore, cancers live in an acidic environment…
So, we can all see where we’re going with this!
But, before we do, I just want to finish talking about Dr Warburg. In the 1920s, Warburg discovered that cancer cells prefer to use sugar in an anaerobic environment. In essence, cancer cells love sugar and don’t really need oxygen. Warburg also showed that if you deprive cancer cells of sugar and oxygen, they quite quickly die. This became known as the ‘Warburg Effect‘.
The principles of the Warburg Effect are still used today, as the basis of PET Scans. In a PET scan, the patient is injected with radioactive sugar, and then scanned for hotspots. These hotspots are where the sugar is being used in the highest concentrations, which is to say: cancer cells.
Warburg’s work, and the Warburg Effect in particular, has lead to the idea that if you adopt a sugar-free diet, then you can’t get cancer. This is something that I’ve looked at before, when I asked whether the Ketogenic Diet could cure cancer. In this instance I concluded that there might be something in the idea of a sugar-free, ketogenic diet. After all, the Inuit peoples, who traditionally ate a diet free of carbohydrates, were reputed to be virtually cancer free…
More research, however, is very much needed.
Anyway, my point is that Dr Warburg made some very valuable contributions in the field of oncology. And while some of what Warburg concluded has now been shown to be incorrect, it wouldn’t have been known at all without his work. This is why it annoys me so much when his name is dragged into alternative medicines.
Which brings me neatly back to the question about whether an alkaline diet can cure cancer…
The rationale goes: if cancers can only exist in acidic environments, and if you make said environment alkaline, then all cancers must die.
Sounds plausible, right?
Except that it falls down at the first hurdle. Cancers can exist in alkaline environments… This experiment is done in labs all the time.
Not only that, but the blood is alkaline, yet you still have Leukemia and Lymphoma… Cancers of the blood!
So, no; even if it worked, an alkaline diet could not cure cancer. Not least because, and I can’t stress this enough, cancers can exist in alkaline environments!
In the face of this, it seems pointless to go into the Alkaline Diet in depth, so I’ll just do some edited highlights.
The idea of an alkaline diet is that if you eat enough alkaline foods, you can make the tissues of your body an alkaline environment, thus killing and preventing cancers. This concept has a number of problems:
- As we’ve established, cancers can exist in an alkaline environment.
- You can’t change the the alkalinity of your body tissue by eating alkaline foods.
- If you do change the alkalinity of your body tissue, you’ll die!
I mean, the idea that an alkaline diet can cure cancer is such a non-starter, I’m going to start wrapping it up here.
Naturally, the alkaline diet is listed as an Alternative Medicine on Wikipedia. Likewise, and somewhat predictably, it’s also included in Wikipedia’s list of unproven and disproven cancer treatments.
Cancer Research UK has the alkaline diet as number 3 on its page about persistent cancer myths.
The Quackwatch site describes the concept as ‘nonsense‘.
And, perhaps most damning of all, Healthline only gives the diet 2.13 out of 5 stars…!
I mean, you will lose weight if you stick to the diet. But you’ll also need to take supplements to make up for some missing nutrients, which is part of why the score is so low. Overall, an alkaline diet is not particularly healthy. There are much better diets, if you want to lose weight…
And if you do want to get drawn into the arguments for the alkaline diet, that you can alter the pH levels of your body, then the post by Science Based Pharmacy is pretty good. Quickly though, the pH principles are this:
- You can alter the pH of your saliva (true).
- You can alter the pH of your urine (true).
- Therefore, you are altering the pH of everything in between (false)!
This reasoning, of course, involves at least one logical fallacy. Please feel free to suggest the logical fallacies at play, in the comment section.
And, with that, I’m done. An alkaline diet cannot and will not cure cancer. The diet, itself, will make you lose weight, but might damage your health in the process. Seriously, there are better diets for weight loss than this one…!