Note: This is a critical analysis of the best selling fad diet book The pH Miracle written for one of my graduate level nutrition classes. I’ve substantially added to the paper since it was submitted. There was so much poor science literacy and pseudoscience in the book, I didn’t have space to cover it all. Even this expanded version misses a few key topics.
The pH Miracle: Miracle Diet or Pseudoscience?
A brief overview of the diet in book The pH Miracle by Robert O Young and Shelley Redford Young along with critical examination of some of the scientific claims supporting the diet as a treatment for a multitude of health problems, including cancer. The paper concludes that Young has little knowledge of human biology or medical science and he based many of his ideas on outdated research done in the 1860’s and 1920’s before technology allowed a greater understanding of microorganisms, cell biology, and human metabolism.
The pH miracle diet is an acid-ash diet popularized by a series of books by Robert O. Young and his wife.1 They also own a residential healing center in California, the pH Miracle Living Center, where they practiced the principles discussed in the book on paying clients.2 The diet is based on personal experiences, Young’s own self-published research, and his clinical practice as a Naturopathic Doctor and nutritionist. Young has an MS in nutrition (1993) and a DSc in chemistry and biology (1995) from American College, and a PhD in nutrition (1997) and a doctorate in naturopathy (1999) from Clayton College of Natural Health.2 American College in Birmingham, Alabama changed its name to Clayton College of Natural Health in 1997; all of Young’s graduate degrees were obtained from one institution.3 It was a non-accredited, distance-learning college that closed in 2010 after being in operation since 1980.3 There is great concern about the quality of the education and the degrees handed out by this institution. Young was arrested in 2014 and convicted in 2016 on two counts of practicing medicine without a license and faces up to 3 years, 8 months in prison in California.4 The jury was deadlocked on charges of grand theft; the prosecutor plans to refile charges against Young.4
Young bases the scientific principles of his diet on research done by Antoine Bechamp in the late 1800’s and his own research, which he calls New Biology, and claims it proves that cells in the body can transform into bacteria, yeasts, and molds in an acidic environment.1(18) Young calls these organisms microforms and he believes they cause all diseases.1(18) Young maintains that he has video evidence of bacilli bacteria transforming into cocci bacteria and then into yeast, and fungus, and then mold in an acidic environment and a reversal of the transformation from mold back into a bacilli bacteria in an alkaline environment.1(20) None of this is scientifically plausible and any biology course that discusses cellular structures and microbes can dispute it.5(62)
In general, the diet is built around the acid-ash hypothesis, the idea that foods that contain chlorine, iodine, phosphorus, and sulfur leave acidic ash behind during metabolism while foods that contain calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, silver, sodium, and zinc leave alkaline ash.1(65) By eliminating or reducing acid causing foods and eating alkaline foods, Young believes the pH of tissues within the body will be alkaline enough that cells can’t transform into microforms. According to Young, if the proper pH balance is achieved then all symptoms of disease will disappear.1(3) Young asserts that the symptoms of an overacidic body include fatigue, aches and pain, infections, hormone imbalances, gastrointestinal issues, mental health issues, asthma, dry skin, etc.1(16) The list encompasses more than half a page and nearly every illness, disease, or minor health problem one can imagine. Young promises that his diet, supplements, and lifestyle will cure all the health problems he lists, up to and including cancer.
Young calls the eating program involved in the pH Miracle diet COWS: Chlorophyll, Oil, Water, Salts.1(66) Chlorophyll is from green vegetables; 70-80% of an alkalizing diet should be made up of them, particularly grasses in the form of green juice, sprouts, capsules, or powdered supplements because grasses are more nutrient dense than other green vegetables as evidenced by the fact that they sustain the lives of cattle, horses, and other ruminant animals.1(69) He claims that humans only need one ounce of protein per day and that can be easily obtained by a plant based diet with soy added once or twice a month; the diet contains only 5-7% protein.1(95,138) 20-30% of the diet should be made up primarily of polyunsaturated fatty acids, a.k.a. oils.1(70,138) Young recommends cold pressed oils like grape seed, hemp seed, flax seed, and borage as well as olive oil, raw nuts, and avocados.1(70) Water seems self explanatory, but Young takes it to another level. He recommends drinking one gallon of alkaline water with a pH of at least 9.5 per day.1(122) He suggests buying his company’s water filtration, electron charging, and pH system for optimal hydration, though he discusses the cheaper options of buying bottled alkaline water from his company or sodium/potassium bicarbonate drops to increase the pH of water.1(125-126) Salt doesn’t mean sodium chloride, but encompasses mineral salts of magnesium, potassium, and calcium as well as sodium bicarbonate.1(74) He recommends adding mineral salt drops or powder to water, sprinkling mineral salts on food at every meal, and drinking alkaline water with one teaspoon to one tablespoon of sodium bicarbonate two to three times per day; again he recommends products sold by his company.1(78-79)
The diet contains minimal animal products (meat, eggs, and dairy), processed and refined foods, yeasts or vinegar, fermented foods, artificial sweeteners, sweet fruits or berries, natural or refined sugars, alcohol, coffee, chocolate, tea, soda, and most grains and legumes because they are acid causing foods.1(66) Non-starchy vegetables, grasses, sprouted grains and legumes, raw nuts, and a few fruits like lemons, limes, avocados, cucumbers, and tomatoes are considered alkaline and the diet should consist of mostly these food items along with unheated, cold pressed oils.1(66) Raw foods are also considered alkalizing while cooked foods are acidifying, so the majority of the foods eaten should be raw, lightly heated, or quickly steamed.1(82) Young asserts that the human digestive tract is not designed to digest food but to alkalize food so stem cells and red blood cells can be formed in the small intestine.1(134) He doesn’t appear to understand basic human biology on the functions of the digestive tract or the formation of red blood cells in red bone marrow.5(850,636) Young also doesn’t seem to know that enzymes in the digestive tract break down foods into their biochemical components. He believes enzymes are waste products that are released when chewing food and they are harmful, acidifying compounds that will damage healthy cells and tissue.1(55) He even warns that digestive enzymes which break down proteins/meat will break down the human body: “You are meat! It will break you down, too!”1(55) This is another reason why he recommends people avoid meat and dairy. Fermentation of any kind is bad to Young because it creates acid and is performed by bacteria or yeasts. He considers all fermentation molding and even warns that the process of ripening turns sweet fruit into alcohol and mold so it should be avoided.1(22),1(103) Young is anti-probiotics because, even though he states that the bacteria in the human gut can synthesize vitamin B12, which they can’t, he also states that there’s no such things as beneficial bacteria.1(55),1(112) According to Young, bacteria in the gut used to be healthy human cells that were transformed into bacteria and the ideal would be “clean” intestines without bacteria, yeasts, or other microforms.1(55) This is contrary to everything medical research has learned about the commensal relationship between humans and their microbiota.
Combining alkaline and acidic foods in the proper quantities is important in Young’s diet so alkaline minerals aren’t pulled out of bone and tissue in order to counteract the acidity in the food.1(13) This idea appears to be an unfounded expansion of the mineral and bone loss experienced by those with chronic kidney disease (CKD) to encompass everyone.6,7 Proper food combining should include no more than four different types of food in one meal, the majority should be alkalizing vegetables with one serving of a protein or one serving of a complex carbohydrate; acid causing proteins and carbohydrates should not be combined in one meal.1(135)
Even without Young taking the acid-ash hypothesis to extremes, there’s no convincing evidence that a diet based on acid and alkaline foods is best for health or that excessive consumption of acidic foods demineralizes bones and tissue. Meta-analysis of well-designed studies looking at the net acid excretion and calcium excretion in acid-ash diets found that, while in general there is a linear progression of greater calcium excretion with higher acid excretion in urine, there’s no evidence that the extra calcium excreted comes from bone and tissues or that a lower pH contributes to the development of osteoporosis.8 The study authors hypothesize that changes in acidity or alkalinity in the diet alters calcium absorption.8 Another meta-analysis by the same authors as the previous study found that, contrary to the acid-ash hypothesis, there’s no evidence that phosphate contributes to bone demineralization, osteoporosis, or bone calcium excretion in the urine.9 Increased phosphate consumption from supposedly acidic meats, dairy, and grains actually decreased calcium excretion in the urine and increased calcium balance within the body.9 This appears to disprove the main theory behind the acid-ash hypothesis, especially when it comes to bone health and the reason for avoidance of meat, dairy, and grains.
In order to test the alkalinity of one’s tissues, Young recommends using pH test strips on urine first thing in the morning, before breakfast, after breakfast, between breakfast and lunch, and between lunch and dinner; the ideal pH is 7.2 or higher.1(22-24) He suggests eating alkaline food or drinking water mixed with mineral salts immediately if the results are a pH of 7 or lower.1(22) While eating or drinking alkaline foods or minerals will change the pH of urine, the pH of blood and extracellular fluid is tightly maintained by the kidneys; diet doesn’t change that, though grave illnesses can.5(1006-09) What the diet, especially the mineral salts and sodium bicarbonate added to drinking water, will do is increase the pH of stomach acid, which can have serious health effects including malabsorption of vitamins and minerals and increased susceptibility to food borne illnesses and pathogenic bacteria.5(869-870)
Young also touts the live blood and dried blood analysis services he provides through his pH Miracle Living Center. By looking at blood droplets through a microscope Young claims to be able to see acid crystals, cholesterol, metals, mircoforms, molds, undigested fats, and more.1(25) The patterns in dried blood supposedly match with certain diseases such as arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.1(26) The progenitor of live blood microscopy was a German zoologist, Giinther Enderlein, who published a report about it in 1925.10 Enderlein used a technique called darkfield microscopy to illuminate artifacts in the blood that could only be seen with oblique lighting.10 Enderlein used Bechamp’s theories from the 1860’s to label the artifacts he could see in blood and came up with an analysis system that’s still used by some alternative medicine practitioners today.10 Small studies on live blood analysis show that identifying and categorizing Enderlein artifacts in live blood is highly subjective and not very accurate.10 It doesn’t meet the standards used for diagnostic testing in the medical field. The study authors don’t think further studies on live blood analysis should be conducted until questions about biochemical and physical confounders can be answered about the artifacts observed like coagulation, osmotic changes, and blood-glass interaction.10 Currently there’s no evidence that the artifacts seen in live blood analysis aren’t normal coagulation or decomposition processes or that they’re related to identifiable diseases.
The real miracle in the pH Miracle is that Young was able to build a successful business around his ideas since there is little to no actual science in the book. The majority of what he calls New Biology is either unreliable, unproven, or disproved. There’s also a deep lack of understanding about human biology in the book that is indicative of poor scientific literacy and his credentials obtained at an institution that appears to have been a diploma mill.
The people who would benefit most from an acid-ash diet are those with chronic kidney disease (CKD) that disrupts the normal bicarbonate buffering system of the kidneys, but the pH Miracle diet goes far beyond the acid-ash hypothesis. No one would benefit from Young’s COWS eating program with the emphasis on raw foods, grasses, and alkaline water with mineral salts or sodium bicarbonate added. It is deficient in protein, vitamin B12, fat soluble vitamins, and the minerals phosphorous, iodine, and heme iron. It would make someone more susceptible to gastrointestinal problems and nutrient deficiencies by altering the pH of the stomach. The pH Miracle is based on misinformation and pseudoscience masquerading as good nutritional advice from a charismatic man with fraudulent credentials, a prison sentence for practicing medicine without a license, and pending grand theft charges against him for swindling desperate ill people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
1. Young RO, Young SR. The pH Miracle: Balance Your Diet, Reclaim Your Health. Kindle Edition. New York, NY. Grand Central Publishing; 2010.
2. About Us. PH Miracle Living website. http://www.phmiracleliving.com/t-about.aspx Accessed January 10, 2017.
3. Clayton College of Natural Health. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clayton_College_of_Natural_Health Updated December 11, 2016. Accessed January 10, 2017.
4. Figueroa T. Split verdict for ‘pH Miracle’ author. The San Diego Union Tribune. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-criminal-trial-robert-young-ph-miracle-2016feb03-story.html Published February 3, 2016. Accessed January 10, 2017.
5. Marieb EN, Hoehn K. Human Anatomy & Physiology. Ninth Edition. Glenview, IL. Pearson Education; 2013.
6. Bonjour JP. Nutritional disturbance in acid–base balance and osteoporosis: a hypothesis that disregards the essential homeostatic role of the kidney. Br J Nutr. 2013; 110(7): 1168-1177. doi: 10.1017/S0007114513000962
7. Zheng CM, Zheng JQ, Wu CC, Lu CL, et al. Bone loss in chronic kidney disease: Quantity or quality? Bone. 2016; 87: 57-70. doi: 10.1016/j.bone.2016.03.017
8. Fenton TR, Eliasziw M, Lyon AW, Tough SC, Hanley DA. Meta-analysis of the quantity of calcium excretion associated with the net acid excretion of the modern diet under the acid-ash diet hypothesis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008; 88(4): 1159-66.
9. Fenton TR, Lyon AW, Eliasziw M, Tough SC, Hanley DA. Phosphate decreases urine calcium and increases calcium balance: A meta-analysis of the osteoporosis acid-ash diet hypothesis. Nutrition Journal. 2009; 8(1): 41. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-8-41
10. Teut M, Warning A, Lüdtke R. Reliability of Enderlein’s darkfield analysis of live blood. Altern Ther Health Med. 2006; 12(4): 36-41.