Plant vs. Animal Food Purines for Preventing Gout

More than 2,000 years ago, “Hippocrates described gout as a disease of kings primarily because it was the wealthy who could afford the ‘rich’ foods, which seemed to precipitate gouty attacks.” Today, however, we can all eat like kings and acquire some diseases of royalty ourselves. That’s why I produced my video Preventing Gout Attacks with Diet.

Gout is caused by needle-sharp crystals of uric acid in our joints. Uric acid comes from the breakdown of purines, which are the breakdown product of genetic material—DNA, the foundation of all life. So, “there is no such thing as a purine-free diet, but foods do vary in their purine content.” It was long thought that people with gout just needed to stay away from all high-purine foods, whether from animals, like organ meats, or plants, like beans, but this strategy proved ineffective. Yes, all uric acid comes from the breakdown of purines, so limiting meat makes sense, but plant sources “have largely been exonerated.”

“The association of gout with alcohol intake and increased dietary purine consumption had been known since ancient times, but there were no prospective trial data” to back it up until fairly recently. The Harvard Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, which followed about 50,000 men for a dozen years, found that alcohol intake was “strongly associated with an increased risk of gout.” In terms of food, they found “an increased risk of gout with higher meat consumption or seafood consumption,” but not with higher consumption of purine-rich plant foods. Perhaps this is because the purines in plants are less bioavailable? So, though it had been suggested that gout sufferers should moderate purine-rich animal and plant foods, their “results suggest that this type of dietary restriction may be applicable to purines of animal origin but not to purine-rich vegetables.”

Although it was not surprising that meat, including seafood, had significant associations with the incidence of gout, this lack of effect of purine-rich plant foods was new. There don’t appear to be any long-term studies showing purine-rich plant foods increase risk, though there are still some guidelines continuing to disseminate those outdated recommendations.

Not only has the intake of purine-rich plants not been associated with high uric acid levels, but the vegetables gout sufferers are specifically told to stay away from—mushrooms, peas, beans, lentils, and cauliflower—were actually found to be protective. This may be because foods rich in fiber, folate, and vitamin C appear to protect against uric acid buildup and gout. “Fiber,” for example, “has been recognized as having a potential role in binding uric acid in the gut for excretion.”

Lack of association between purine-rich vegetables and urate could be due to the co-packaging of these “beneficial plant components (such as vitamin C, dietary fiber or some phytochemicals), which may have masked an effect of purine on [uric acid]. Vegetable intake, regardless of purine content, may also be protective as it may increase [uric acid] excretion.”

By changing the pH of our urine, we can change uric acid clearance. Eating an alkaline diet, which was a vegetarian diet in the case of the study I profile in my video, was found “effective for removing uric acid from the body.” Those eating the alkaline diet excreted significantly more uric acid than those eating the acidic diet. As such, uric acid levels in the blood of those eating the acid-forming diet rose within days.

So, one would assume uric acid levels are lower in vegetarians, and, indeed, those eating vegetarian diets long-term were found to have significantly lower levels in their blood. To prove cause and effect, though, you need to do an interventional trial, where you take people, change their diets, and see what happens. Researchers took ten guys to study the build-up of uric acid in their kidneys, kept them on a standard Western diet for five days, and measured their relative supersaturation for uric acid. Then, they tried a vegetarian diet for five days. The result? Within days, the intake of the vegetarian diet led to a 93 percent decline in the risk of uric acid crystallization.

You can do it the other way, too: Take a bunch of people with gout, feed them a big meal of meat, and see if you can trigger an attack. Seven patients were put in a hospital, “stabilized on a low-purine diet and then challenged with a meat-laden dinner.” In response, their uric acid levels shot up, and they started getting gout attacks. Then they added alcohol, and their uric acid levels shot up even further. In all, the researchers were able to trigger gout attacks in six out of the seven patients with just single meals.

Now, some meats have less purines than others. For those who aren’t squeamish, inches-long superworms, for example, have particularly low purine levels.

Not all animal foods increase gout risk, though. Low-fat dairy products were found to be protective. Given that, we would predict vegans to be at a disadvantage, which is indeed what was found, though all groups tested—meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans—were within the normal range of around 3.5 to 7.

Should gout patients add milk to their diets? Well, although drinking the equivalent of ten cups of skim milk at a time appears to have an acute lowering effect on uric acid levels, in the long term over months, at the equivalent of two cups a day, there was not a statistically significant lowering effect. Gout patients were given skim milk powder for three months, and it did not appear to help. Though soymilk has also been associated with a lower risk of uric acid buildup, there are no interventional trials to back that up.

The bottom line is that we now have good research on how to reduce risk of gout “without the use of drug treatments through modification of diet.” That’s important, because allopurinol is the “drug of choice.” It’s considered generally safe, but what does it mean when doctors talk about a relatively safe drug? Well, about “2% of patients develop hypersensitivity reactions, which can sometimes be severe and fatal with a mortality rate of ~20%”—and that’s the safe drug. The other leading drug, colchicine, has “no clear-cut distinction between nontoxic, toxic, and lethal doses.”

A better choice is through diet, and these videos show you how sweet that diet choice can be:

And, for alkalinizing your urine, see How to Treat Kidney Stones with Diet and Testing Your Diet with Pee and Purple Cabbage.

Uric acid is double-edged sword, as both high and low levels are associated with increased mortality. If our uric acid levels are too high, we can get gout; if they’re too low, it may increase our risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This is presumed to be because uric acid acts as a powerful brain antioxidant. See my videos Miocene Meteorites and Uric Acid and Parkinson’s Disease and the Uric Acid Sweet Spot for more on this.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Treating Kidney Stones with Diet

Studies suggest that excessive consumption of animal protein poses a risk of kidney stone formation, likely due to the acid load contributed by the high content of sulfur-containing amino acids in animal protein, a topic I explore in my video, Preventing Kidney Stones with Diet. What about treating kidney stones, though? I discuss that in How to Treat Kidney Stones with Diet. Most stones are calcium oxalate, formed like rock candy when the urine becomes supersaturated. Doctors just assumed that if stones are made out of calcium, we simply have to tell people to reduce their calcium intake. That was the dietary gospel for kidney stone sufferers until a 2002 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine pitted two diets against one another—a low-calcium diet versus a diet low in animal protein and salt. The restriction of animal protein and salt provided greater protection, cutting the risk of having another kidney stone within five years in half.

What about cutting down on oxalates, which are concentrated in certain vegetables? A recent study found there was no increased risk of stone formation with higher vegetable intake. In fact, greater dietary intake of whole plant foods, fruits, and vegetables were each associated with reduced risk independent of other known risk factors for kidney stones. This means we may get additional benefits bulking up on plant foods in addition to just restricting animal foods.

A reduction in animal protein not only reduces the production of acids within the body, but should also limit the excretion of urate, uric acid crystals that can act as seeds to form calcium stones or create entire stones themselves. (Uric acid stones are the second most common kidney stones after calcium.)

There are two ways to reduce uric acid levels in the urine: a reduction of animal protein ingestion, or a variety of drugs. Removing all meat—that is, switching from the standard Western diet to a vegetarian diet—can remove 93% of uric acid crystallization risk within days.

To minimize uric acid crystallization, the goal is to get our urine pH up to ideally as high as 6.8. A number of alkalinizing chemicals have been developed for just this purpose, but we can naturally alkalize our urine up to the recommended 6.8 using purely dietary means. Namely, by removing all meat, someone eating the standard Western diet can go from a pH of 5.95 to the goal target of 6.8—simply by eating plant-based. As I describe in my video, Testing Your Diet with Pee & Purple Cabbage, we can inexpensively test our own diets with a little bathroom chemistry, for not all plant foods are alkalinizing and not all animal foods are equally acidifying.

A Load of Acid to Kidney Evaluation (LAKE) score has been developed to take into account both the acid load of foods and their typical serving sizes. It can be used to help people modify their diet for the prevention of both uric acid and calcium kidney stones, as well as other diseases. What did researchers find? The single most acid-producing food is fish, like tuna. Then, in descending order, are pork, then poultry, cheese (though milk and other dairy are much less acidifying), and beef followed by eggs. (Eggs are actually more acidic than beef, but people tend to eat fewer eggs in one sitting.) Some grains, like bread and rice, can be a little acid-forming, but pasta is not. Beans are significantly alkaline-forming, but not as much as fruits or even better, vegetables, which are the most alkaline-forming of all.

Through dietary changes alone, we may be able to dissolve uric acid stones completely and cure patients without drugs or surgery.

To summarize, the most important things we can do diet-wise is to drink 10 to 12 cups of water a day, reduce animal protein, reduce salt, and eat more vegetables and more vegetarian.

Want to try to calculate their LAKE score for the day? Just multiply the number of servings you have of each of the food groups listed in the graph in the video times the score. 

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: