While no one would seriously deny the role of a high-protein diet in building muscle, there is one often overlooked drawback—people don’t eat enough alkaline foods to balance the acid that comes with taking in so much protein. Amino acids containing sulfur, mainly methionine and cysteine, can convert into sulfuric acid in the body. Since optimal body functions require a specific pH—that is, the measure of acidity and alkalinity in the blood—the body has a number of natural buffers that deal with a rise in acidity, including bicarbonate and phosphate. Still, protein may overwhelm the system if it’s not balanced by alkaline, or base, foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Many bodybuilders avoid fruits and vegetables because of their carbohydrate content.
The body deploys alkaline minerals, mostly calcium and magnesium, to buffer excess acid. The loss of calcium in the buffering process has led to the idea that a high-protein diet makes you excrete excess calcium. If you don’t replace the calcium in your diet, low-calcium symptoms, such as muscle cramps, may arise. On a long-term basis, not getting enough calcium—or losing it as a result of buffering—can result in osteoporosis.
While many dietitians still warn about the dangers of calcium loss with high-protein diets, a higher protein intake has been shown to increase bone density. In addition, the loss of calcium is only a problem if your body is also out of phosphate. Most natural high-protein foods are rich in phosphate, which is why you don’t often see bodybuilders’ bones crumbling during their posing routines.
Potassium is an alkaline mineral, and several studies have shown that taking supplemental potassium can prevent the excessive protein excretion and calcium loss that can occur with a diet high in protein and acidic foods. The best natural sources of potassium are fruits and vegetables, which helps explain why they’re considered alkaline. A 41-day study involved 19 healthy men and women, aged 54 to 82, who went on both low- and high-protein diets.1 The subjects took supplemental potassium bicarbonate, up to 4,320 milligrams daily, or a placebo.
The results: Potassium supplements reduced the nitrogen excretion that occurs with a diet high in protein and acids. The potassium also increased participants’ calcium absorption while they were on the lower-protein diet. Potassium reduced urinary nitrogen excretion by 50 percent, which translates into decreased muscle wasting. The most interesting finding of the study, however, was that the supplement increased the count of insulinlike growth factor 1. IGF-1, which is synthesized in the liver and locally in muscle, is a highly anabolic hormone. Most scientists think that nearly all of the anabolic effects attributed to growth hormone come about because it helps synthesize IGF-1 in the liver. The nitrogen- and calcium-sparing effects of potassium in this study are attributable to the increased IGF-1. Most older people are deficient in both GH and IGF-1 and may be frail for that reason. The implication of the study is that maintaining a favorable acid-to-alkaline balance in the elderly—in this case through high-dose potassium—can have anabolic effects by upgrading IGF-1 release.
Another way that a high-acid diet can promote muscle loss is by increasing the release of cortisol, the primary catabolic hormone. When cortisol is on the rise, anabolic hormones usually recede, which sets you up for significant loss of muscle mass. Studies show that eating more alkaline foods can offset the rise in cortisol. Because excess cortisol has also been linked to obesity (particularly in the trunk area), cardiovascular disease and depression, ensuring an adequate alkaline reserve can help protect you against those maladies too. Also, exercise itself, particularly high-intensity weight training, results in a transient acidosis that is exacerbated by a high protein intake. Maintaining a favorable acid-to-alkaline balance helps boost blood buffering capacity and exercise recovery.
So what do you do if you just can’t or won’t increase your intake of fruits and vegetables? One option is to supplement with potassium bicarb and ensure an adequate intake of other alkaline minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. Or you could use a high-quality “green powder” supplement. Researchers have found these products to be effective in increasing the alkaline reserve for those on a high-protein diet.2 While most of the green supplements are rather pricey, they’re potent in small amounts; just one serving a day will do the job. Increasing your alkaline reserve will not only prevent muscle and mineral losses but also result in notably increased feelings of well-being, especially if you’ve been a devotee of an acid-forming high-protein diet.
Editor’s note: Have you been ripped off by using supplements? Want to know the truth about them? Check out Natural Anabolics, available at www.JerryBrainum.com. IM
1 Ceglia, L., et al. (2008). Potassium bicarbonate attenuates the urinary excretion that accompanies an increase in dietary protein and may promote calcium absorption. J Clin Endocrin Metab. 94:645-653.
2 Berardi, J., et al. (2008). Plant-based dietary supplement increases urinary pH. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 5:20.