A painful disease once known for afflicting wealthy kings is making a comeback, and fad diets like keto may be partly to blame

gout foot painShutterstock

  • Gout is on the rise as more Americans indulge in purine-rich foods like beer, bacon, and beef.
  • Being overweight can put people at risk of developing the arthritis, as can some fad diets like keto and Atkins if dieters consume too much meat.
  • The prevalence of gout in the US population is expected to continue rising in the coming years.

Feast like a king and you could get gout like one, too.

The condition - a type of inflammatory arthritis - can arise when people load up on purine-rich food and drink - things like bacon, steak, scallops, veal, and alcoholic drinks. Eating and drinking too much of this stuff can cause harmful stores of uric acid to build up in our joints. That buildup can lead to sudden, painful gout symptoms in the hands and feet.

Gout has been identified clinically since at least the time of ancient Egyptians, around 2640 BC. Traditionally, this arthritis only affected the small sliver of society that could afford rich meats and sugary alcohols - hence its reputation as the "disease of kings." But no more.

Gout is making a comeback across the US. Health care consulting firm The Lewin Group estimated in 2006 that the prevalence of gout across the country would increase by 38% before 2025. The condition already affects more than 1 in 25 Americans, and is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

One recent example: President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort reportedly has gout that sometimes forces him to use a wheelchair.

Gout can come on suddenly and be extremely painful

gout symptomsShutterstock

Hippocrates called gouty arthritis the "unwalkable disease," since the sudden pains of a bout of gout can make it nearly impossible to move.

"An attack of gout can occur suddenly, often waking you up in the middle of the night with the sensation that your big toe is on fire," according to the Mayo Clinic. "The affected joint is hot, swollen and so tender that even the weight of the sheet on it may seem intolerable."

Gout is often triggered by hyperuricemia (too much uric acid in our blood). When this happens, the body is either producing too much uric acid, or not getting rid of enough of it, so uric acid crystals begin to build up in tissues and joints. The reason poor diets make it easier to get gout is that the purine compounds in some meat, seafood, and alcohol can easily raise a person's uric acid to unsafe levels.

During a gout episode, a person's toes, ankles, knees, elbows, wrists, and fingers can become swollen, hot, and red. The pain is most severe during the first hours, but the discomfort can last for days or weeks after an outburst. Sufferers can take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (Advil) to help ease their symptoms, and ice packs can also help hurting joints. Some prescription drugs can block uric acid production in the body (xanthine oxidase inhibitors) and help people with gout remove uric acid (uricosurics.)

People with advanced gout flare-ups can develop bulbous nodules under their skin called tophi, which are bulging deposits of urate crystals.

advanced goutShutterstock

Why gout is making a comeback

Back in the day, Benjamin Franklin (a well-known beer lover) suffered from gout, as did Thomas Jefferson.

In 2011, a study of more than 5,700 Americans found that 5.9% of US men suffer from gout, and 2% of women do, partly because people are getting heavier and high blood pressure is becoming more common.

Being overweight can promote gout attacks because extra weight leads to more uric acid production in the body, and also makes it more difficult for the kidneys - the body's built-in detoxifiers - to flush that acid. Making matters worse, drugs for high blood pressure, like water pills that make your kidneys release more sodium, often increase levels of uric acid in the body.

Today, our modern diets and habits of eating to excess are also both partly to blame for the condition's prevalence. Doctors have suggested that more sugary drinks in our diets may play a role as well.

The number of gout sufferers is expected to continue ballooning in the coming years, along with the nation's obesity epidemic.

Connections between the keto diet and gout

Some fad diets increase people's risk for gout, too. Followers of the keto diet and other low-carbohydrate regimes sometimes trade in carb-heavy foods for more beef and other gout-inducing items.

"Quick-fix diets like keto and paleo, where your intake is very high in fat and proteins, those can lead to gout," Doctor Leigh Vinocur recently told The Cut. "It's ironic: modern living - from the food industrial complex to those brand-new diets like keto - have led to an uptick in one of the world's earliest diseases."

Read More: Silicon Valley's favorite diet can lead to kidney trouble - here's how to go keto without getting sick

But that doesn't have to be the case if low-carb diets like keto are done well. One 2017 Yale study, performed in mice, suggested that a proper keto diet may actually protect against gout by reducing inflammation in the body.

"It's actually a better condition, as long as one stays in nutritional ketosis," Dr. Stephen Phinney, founder of Virta Health, said recently in a video.

Other doctors agree that relying too much on meat is a flawed approach to keto eating.

"Some of the problem might lie in the way that people interpret the keto diet," Dr. Thomas Chi, a urologist at the University of California, San Francisco, recently told Business Insider. He added that a combination of " tons of meat" and not enough water could lead to kidney stones - another complication of gout.

Rapid weight loss and yo-yo dieting strategies can also contribute to severe ups and downs in the body's uric acid levels, which can trigger gout, too.

"The body loves consistency," Phinney said.
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