Have you heard of gout? It’s the most common form of inflammatory arthritis, and it’s on the rise in countries like Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. If you have gout—which is caused by uric acid crystals forming within or around joints, making them painful, red and swollen—understanding how it’s affected by what you eat and drink is going to help you both treat and prevent attacks. 

What’s going on with these uric acid crystals?

Uric acid forms when your body breaks down compounds called purines, which are found naturally in our cells and in some high-protein foods. Your bloodstream takes uric acid to the kidneys and it leaves your body in your urine. However, if your uric acid levels are too high, either because your body isn’t excreting it or you have a condition that causes high levels in your blood, uric acid crystals can form within or around your joints. This causes swelling, inflammation and pain  in the joints, as well as in soft tissue like bursa and tendons. The crystals can also build up under your skin and eventually cause hard bumps called tophi.

How does what I eat affect gout?

Gout is directly affected by the levels of uric acid in your blood. Foods rich in purines raise your uric acid levels, because purines break down into uric acid. So, avoiding foods high in purines will reduce your risk of another gout attack. Purine-rich foods include red meat and organ meats, shellfish, oily fish like sardines and mackerel, and foods that contain corn syrup (this could include processed sauces and drinks). And in general, maintaining a healthy weight rather than being overweight or obese reduces uric acid levels.

Does what I drink affect gout too?

Yes, definitely. Alcohol, especially beer and red wine, as well as sugary drinks like pop, are high in purines too. Drinking any kind of alcohol can trigger gout, so it’s best to stick to a maximum of one drink a day for women and two per day for men. Drink water often, because being dehydrated can cause an attack too.

Are there foods that can help lower uric acid levels?

Some research studies suggest that in addition to a well-balanced diet, you can reach for a few specific items more often to help ward off a gout attack: all vegetables, cherries, low-fat dairy products, coffee, and water. As well, consider this large, long-term study, published in the British Medical Journal , which looked at the diets of nearly 45,000 men over 26 years. Those whose diets most closely followed the DASH diet (originally designed to combat high blood pressure, the DASH approach focuses on lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, low-fat dairy products and whole grains, and limits sweetened drinks, salt and red and processed meats) had a lower risk for gout. Those who followed a more Western diet—lots of red and processed meat, fries, refined grains and sweets—had a higher risk for gout.

Is diet the only thing that affects gout?

There are a number of factors that play a role in gout, not just food and drink choices. These include some medications, like diuretics and low-dose aspirin; kidney disease; heredity; and gender (men are more susceptible). However, managing your diet is one of the biggies if you have gout and want to decrease your risk of an attack.