This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.
A common question I get from readers is whether a Paleo-type diet will increase their risk for gout. Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis caused by elevated levels of uric acid in the blood, forming crystal deposits in the joints, tendons, and surrounding tissue.
Gout typically affects the feet in general and big toe joint specifically, and causes severe pain and swelling. In the past, gout was referred to as a “rich man’s disease”, as it typically affected the upper class and royalty who could afford “rich” foods like meat, sugar, and alcohol.
Uric acid is a byproduct of the metabolism of purines, one of two types of nitrogenous bases that form the basic structure of DNA and RNA. While purines are present in all foods, they are typically higher in many of the foods emphasized on a nutrient-dense Paleo diet, such as red meat, turkey, organ meats, and certain types of fish and seafood. Patients with gout are often advised to reduce or eliminate these purine-rich foods with the goal of preventing excess uric acid production, thereby reducing the symptoms of gout. And research has confirmed the association between high purine intakes and acute gout attacks, suggesting that those diagnosed with gout would benefit from a reduction in purine-rich foods. (1, 2)
So, do we need reconsider recommendations to eat foods like liver, sardines, red meat, mussels, and other traditional foods? Do these nutrient-dense, purine-rich foods really cause gout? Are those of us following a Paleo-style diet putting ourselves at greater risk for this painful, debilitating condition?
Inflammation as a Cause of Gout Attacks
While high purine intake is associated with gout attacks in those who already have hyperuricemia, or high levels of uric acid in the blood, purine intake alone is not enough to trigger these attacks. (3) In fact, uric acid levels are frequently decreased during gout attacks, sometimes to within the normal range. Another factor associated with gout flares is an increase in C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6), cytokines produced during numerous inflammatory conditions. (4) These inflammatory cytokines are increased in the joint fluid and serum of patients with acute gouty arthritis. (5, 6)
Therefore, systemic inflammation is likely a key factor affecting the likelihood of developing gout flares, and as we know, diet plays a significant role in inflammation. While foods like grass-fed beef, sardines, and mackerel are high in purines, they are also higher in omega-3 fatty acids and low in omega-6 fatty acids. Since the omega-3 to omega-6 balance in your diet modulates the inflammatory response, a diet with sufficient long-chain omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA will reduce systemic inflammation and may reduce the risk of forming the uric acid crystals that cause joint pain.
Fructose: An Important Player in the Development of Gout
While fructose in naturally occurring amounts is relatively benign, research has shown that higher intakes of fructose may mediate many of the abnormalities seen in the metabolic syndrome, including elevated triglycerides, due to increases in uric acid production. (7) A recent study confirmed the uric acid–elevating potential of fructose ingestion, both by producing excess uric acid and reducing its excretion in the urine. (8)
While some uric acid in the blood is normal, providing a level of antioxidant protection, excess uric acid is a pro-oxidant and the major causative factor for gout. Some researchers even suggest that this excess uric acid in the blood is a major factor in the development of insulin resistance and metabolic diseases. (9) So if you’re avoiding excess fructose consumption from high fructose corn syrup and excess sucrose (table sugar), you’ll be at a lower risk for gout that someone who’s washing their burger down with a can of coke.
A Word on the Epidemiological Correlation between Meat and Gout
A major reason that many conventional physicians and health professionals see red meat consumption as a significant risk factor for gout is that red meat is typically a component of an overall “Western diet pattern”, a pattern that is also high in sugar, vegetable oils, sweetened beverages, refined grains, and processed meats, while being low in fruits and vegetables. (10) It is nearly impossible for epidemiologists to separate meat consumption from this general pattern of eating when studying modern cultures — after all, most “health conscious” eaters in our generation believe that meat is unhealthy and typically eat less of it.
While most epidemiological studies attempt to control for these confounding factors, the truth is that most high consumers of meat are generally prone to other unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking, and are typically more overweight than low meat consumers in these studies. Of course this doesn’t tell us anything about the active, health-conscious Paleo eater who avoids high fructose corn syrup and omega-6 fatty acids, as well as other inflammatory foods like refined grains, and doesn’t drink heavily or smoke.
Eating a Paleo Diet Won’t Cause Gout!
The next time your doctor or best friend says you’ll get gout from a Paleo diet, you can refer him or her to this article. Rest assured that a diet full of nutrient dense foods like grass-fed red meat, liver, shellfish, and fatty ocean fish is not putting you at risk for developing this painful condition. More likely to cause gout are the common American dietary staples such as sugar-sweetened beverages, industrial seed and vegetable oils, refined carbohydrates, and excessive alcohol (beer in particular). The Western diet pattern is a risk factor for gout; a nutrient-dense Paleo diet is not.