How my training diet ruined my life…

As many of you know, I have been having some major problems with my health lately.  Since mid September I have dealt with varying degrees of pain, swelling and inflammation that have left me temporarily crippled.  It’s a bad situation, but not as rare as I suspected.

About six or seven years ago, I began having problems with my feet.  After several years of dealing with pain I discovered I was suffering from Gout (and Gouty Arthritis).  Initially diagnosed as a stress fracture, it took many years and many doctor visits to discover this problem because I am not the typical Gout sufferer.  I did not have any of the typical habits, behavior or associated health problems typical of most Gout sufferers and blood tests did not show high Uric acid levels.  After much research and experimentation, I was able to control my problem through diet.  Until recently, I had not had an attack in almost two years.

In September of this year I met with a personal trainer/nutritionist.  My goal was to work up a training plan to cut some body fat and build some lean muscle.  The trainer provided me with a nutrition plan high in natural, lean animal proteins and filled with raw vegetables while, also, eliminating sugars and dairy.  All in all, a very clean, healthy diet.

Within a week I noticed a problem, but didn’t catch the hint right away.  After 5 weeks on the diet I was on crutches and in such ridiculous amounts of pain I could not focus, work or sleep.  So here’s how it developed…

Towards the beginning of the second week I was experiencing pain in my right foot, making it uncomfortable to walk.  The pain was intermittent and would come and go with varying degrees of intensity.  The pain was not as acute as I had typically felt during a true Gout attack, but the result was the same: immobility. Sometimes there was swelling and redness associated with the pain, and other times there was no swelling at all.  The pain seemed to move throughout the foot as well, often feeling like the source of pain changed from one day to the next.

This lasted for about 3 weeks before it seemed to leave my right foot, tricking me in to thinking it was gone.  Within a day or two, it manifested in my left foot with exaggerated intensity and quickly attacked my ankle making it nearly impossible to walk.  I struggled to get around for about a week before the Gouty Arthritis attacked my left knee leaving me no choice but to rely on crutches.  Every move resulted in huge amounts of pain, even sitting still the pain was, at times, unbearable.  My foot, ankle and knee experienced massive swelling and inflammation.  By this time, I had realized what the diet had done and was taking strides to change it.

Now, after dealing with getting the pain under control, I can break down what happened.  People with a disposition for, or history of, Arthritis (Gout, RA, Gouty Arthritis, Pseudo-Gout, etc.) should limit their consumption of animal proteins.  According to a Mayo Clinic web-article outlining a healthy “Gout Diet”,

“Animal proteins are high in purine. Avoid or severely limit high-purine foods, such as organ meats, herring, anchovies and mackerel. Red meat (beef, pork and lamb), fatty fish and seafood (tuna, shrimp, lobster and scallops) are associated with increased risk of gout. Because all meat, poultry and fish contain purines, limit your intake to 4 to 6 ounces (113 to 170 grams) daily.”

My training diet prescribed 12 to 15 ounces of animal protein per day.  In addition to this I was consuming two protein shakes per day and a breakfast consisting of a 7 egg-white omelette.  The animal based proteins are the biggest problem.  Though some people have reported problems with Gout attacks when taking supplemental Protein Shakes, it is usually admitted that the protein shakes are a part of an already high-protein diet.  In fact, most Protein Shake supplements these days are dairy based Whey Protein and in a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine,

We found a strong inverse relation between consumption of dairy products, especially low-fat dairy products, and the incidence of gout. The ingestion of milk proteins (casein and lactalbumin) has been shown to reduce serum uric acid levels in healthy subjects because of the uricosuric effect of these proteins. Conversely, a significant increase in the uric acid level was induced by a dairy-free diet in a four-week randomized clinical trial. Since dairy products are low in purine content, dairy protein may exert its urate-lowering effect without providing the concomitant purine load contained in other protein sources such as meat and seafood. Although other nutrients in dairy products may be responsible for the inverse association, there is currently no relevant biologic or metabolic evidence available.”

The above referenced study points to the second major flaw in my training diet: the elimination of dairy.  Dairy products like low-fat milk, cheese, cottage cheese typically have sugar and salt levels we were trying to avoid in the diet plan supplied by the nutritionist.  As it turns out, eliminating dairy from my diet may have been the catalyst that enabled the severe problem I developed on this diet.  This from a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, “…consumption of dairy products, especially low-fat dairy products, is associated with a substantially reduced risk of gout.”

It also seems that the overall goal of attempting to reduce my body fat may have played a factor.  Over the last 18 months, I have lost nearly 60 pounds.  I have been very careful to lose the weight safely and gradually using a combination of exercise and healthy eating.  In an article discussing obesity and Gout from the Mayo Clinic, “…avoid fasting and rapid weight loss because these can promote a gout attack.”  Though I never had fasted and certainly do not consider my weight loss “rapid”, the fact that I was working to lose weight may have played a role in my issue as well.

Aside from Gout, there are many studies that point to high-protein diets as the culprit for chronic pain issues.  There is a condition commonly referred to as Protein Arthritis, which can cause chronic pain and inflammation in the major joints, back and legs.  Pain usually comes on during times of rest and can be mitigated through activity.  From The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery,

“There is a definite relation between high protein intake and chronic joint pain; this is not always indicated by high uric acid content in the blood, although it may be. There is a definite form of arthritis due to or associated with incomplete metabolism, poor elimination, or both. This condition is found in the young as well as in the old; in the lean as well as in the fat; in those of active as well as those of sedentary habits.”

The associated paper, written by Paul B. Magnuson, M.D., describes many case studies where a patient’s chronic pain issues where a direct result of a high-protein diet and could be managed and/or eliminated through diet.

So, what do I do now?  Well, I am going back to what was working before, following a healthy, clean raw-foods diet with a limited amount of animal protein. I will also reintroduce dairy to my diet and continue to limit over-processed foods with high sodium and sugar content. This from the New England Journal of Medicine,

“A diet designed to prevent gout should derive its protein content from egg whites (instead of whole eggs) and milk products, and should eliminate or substantially reduce consumption of meats and seafood.”

“A higher total intake of animal or vegetable protein was not associated with an increased risk of gout. Actually, our results regarding vegetable-protein intake suggest that protein from vegetable sources may have a protective effect, although its magnitude appeared to be smaller than that provided by dairy protein.”

And from the same article,

“Overall, however, our findings provide prospective evidence that meat consumption and seafood consumption are associated with an increased risk of gout, whereas consumption of dairy products, especially low-fat dairy products, is associated with a substantially reduced risk of gout. In contrast, moderate intake of purine-rich vegetables or protein is not associated with an increased risk of gout.”

 

If you have experienced seemingly random joint pain, chronic pain, or any other related issues I would love to hear your story.  

If I can help any single person rid themselves of pain, or find an answer to a chronic problem that is continually misdiagnosed, I will be very happy about having told my story.  Understanding how your body metabolizes proteins and what problems can come from consuming too much protein is important to feeling better and being more active.  Mine was a problem that, multiple times, completely wrecked my health.  Doctors have a difficult time diagnosing these nutrition related issues because the symptoms are so general and misleading.  If you suspect you may have an issue, simply try reducing (or eliminating) your protein consumption for a month and see what happens.  What could it hurt?

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Dave Creech is a successful business owner and entrepreneur based in Phoenix, Arizona. He shares his personal story and lifelong passion for travel and rugged outdoor adventure through his blog at WildernessDave.com. David’s focus has been on trip stories, gear reviews, Wilderness Medicine and a series of articles aimed at introducing Yoga to hikers and backpackers as a path to staying fit, healthy and injury free.

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Comments

  1. Glad you are on the mend. Like you said hopefully you can get back out on the trails soon. I bet you are suffering from a little cabin fever as well.

  2. So guess that means you will be taking on more of Mer’s eating habits, huh?

  3. Dave,
    I’ve been on a Fish Oil supplement to combat the joint pain and swelling and it’s worked for me, but I don’t consume the high levels of animal proteins…might work for you.

    • Thanks, Beau. I do have some fish oil supplements that I will probably start taking once I completely rid myself of the protein issue. Glad to hear those are working for you, do you know the root cause of your joint pain issues? What does the Dr say?

  4. Hi Dave,
    First I have to say I’m sorry you have to go through all of this with what I know to be one the most horrific and most painful of afflictions – the gout!
    I too have suffered from gout from a pretty early age (my teens) and have been dealing with it for over twenty years.
    As I learned more about gout and changed my diet, my symptoms became less and less and flare ups from the demon farther apart. What was it that brought a flare up on? Alcohol. Any kind. Any amount. So I gave it up and my gout problems (still maintaining a diet geared for gout avoidance) have been a non issue for quite some time.
    This leads me to the second thing I wanted to say;

    THANK YOU!

    Thanks for writting this post and pulling my head out of the clouds. I just started a training routine last month and I jumped into a typical training diet much like the one you mention. So now I pause to rethink my plan before its too late. As of today I have no symptoms of gout, and believe you me, I want to keep it that way!
    I have learned a lot over the years on how to deal with gout and would be happy to share war stories and swap advice. So feel free to email me if you like.
    Sometimes success in dealing with an issue leads to complacency. Your article yanked me forcefully from that place before (I hope!) it’s too late. I wish for you to also be able to enjoy such complacency in the future, however fleeting it may be!

    With much gratitude,
    Doug

    • Doug,

      Thank you so much! You are exactly the type of person that I was thinking of when I wrote the article. You’re right, success breads complacency. I hadn’t had an attack in quite some time and DID NOT THINK about what my diet would do to me. I hope you are able to make the adjustments in time.

      For me, alcohol alone has never been a trigger. I was not much of a drinker when I started having problems. Later, when I did find myself drinking more often, it didn’t seem to create any complications unless combined with other foods. I’ve never had an attack like the one brought on by this training diet…it definitely put the fear of God in me.

      I’m very happy to read your comment and I wish you all the best.

      Thanks,

      Dave

  5. Hi Dave

    Thanks for compiling all this information together. I’ve had mild knee and foot pain for over a year now and I believe that it has something to do with the ration of animal protein I consume, +/- 150g per day. In October I was on a high fat/protein diet and for a while I experienced no pain. Now I am back on the same diet and trying to figure out what caused the relief. I am still experiencing the discomfort but my Uric acid levels are normal. This article has helped me alot, I believe animal protein is the culprit. Could you please share what your lean muscle weight was and what quantity of animal and dairy protein your are consuming a day to stay pain free? A starting point would be helpful. All the best.

  6. Jackie J. says:

    It’s all so confusing! I am a pianist with an addiction to home renovation. I put a LOT of stress on my hands over the years, and finally the swelling (after building my deck) did NOT go away… for a year. I was working (at the piano) with fingers wrapped. The swelling and tenderness moved into the other hand as well. What? I saw many doctors and finally saw one who suggested the Paleo diet. I figured, what the heck, and, strangely, the swelling went away in 3 days. Magical! But after about 8 months, the tenderness started creeping back again and I have been able to do nothing about it. HOWEVER, I believe that since I went “Paleo”, I’ve been having excessive protein, and NOW my issue is not only whatever caused the swelling originally, but is also a protein excess problem. I definitely feel better when eating less protein. I have made an appointment with a nutritionist because I’m thoroughly confused about what I should and should not eat/do/think/believe! It’s good to read articles like yours simply to know I’m not crazy. I KNOW my hand issues are nutritional (as well as an underlying overuse problem). At the moment, I’m vacillating between hope and giving up.

    • Interview your nutritionists. Make sure you find one that understands metabolic issues in relation to nutrition and digestion. Also just ask them if they’ve heard of protein overload or protein related arthritis. Sadly, most nutritionists don’t know a whole lot outside their direct, narrow experience. A trainer claiming to be a “nutrition expert” is what got me in trouble.

      Don’t give up. It is controllable, you may just need to figure out some specific triggers for your system. Paleo is good on the surface (whole, unprocessed foods) but is heavily reliant on animal proteins and that can be bad for some of us. A whole food diet with a good balance will help as long as the ratio of meat to vegetables is heavier on the veggie side.

  7. Thanks for this post Dave. Hope you still read this post. I found out the hard way that my body freaks out with a protein supplement that has a branch chain amino acid stack. I recently took a supplement that I didn’t know had it (in retrospect I should have spent time reading the whole tin) and the pain on my left toe and now both my knees acompanied with edema is not fun. When I had a previous attack a weeks dose of colcicine knocked it away but this attack has been hanging around for about 3 weeks and I’m on a steroid to alleviate the swelling. Joint swelling needs to be addressed immediately and I’m curious to know if you took any meds in addition to your diet change. The cracking sound in my knees when I attempt to squat concerns me so any help will be appreciated.

    I’ve been working our for 20 plus yrs and missing my workouts is psychologically tormenting. Like you said you will be hard pressed to find a nutritionist or MD who understands diet related gout/arthritis

    • Rob,

      I feel for you, it’s no fun. I had/have the cracking sensation in my knees too. Few things have helped that.

      I am taking Allopurinol religiously now. which seems to be helping the ongoing issue. I also do NOT take any protein supplements at all. I finally found a doc who was willing to do lab tests every week to monitor my Uric Acid levels and see what was going on. I was consistently very high, even when eating a VERY clean diet and hydrating properly. Then my system would spike with the wrong kind of protein (i.e. protein supplements).

      • Thanks for the reply. I had a prior attack that I got under control with a weeks supply of Colchicine but this one is lingering. My Doc also suggested getting on allopurinol as well. The bright side of this is not taking protein supplementation and not having to worry what heavy metal intake you may be subjecting yourself to.

  8. Orphia wilson says:

    Hello..I’m thankful for your post also…I frequent the gym about 5 days a week..I went from a size 16 to a size 8 and still reducing…I’ve been juicing broccoli..celeries apples..cucumbers as my main ingredients for about 3 years..I have extremely high energy ..BUT this year I wanted more protein to help looseness in the abs..due to cessarian..years ago…and just about 3 to 4 weeks now I’m experiencing pain in both thumb joints…I do take a class that has weight training…with dumbells…this could also have exasperated this pain..but it’s continuous when touched..but I now know that it’s related to the whey protein that I have been adding to my juice.. Because I was pain free and symptom free prior to this protein intake..thanks Dave
    Orphia

  9. Hello, I think I’m suffering from the same problems. I think there needs to be more warnings about taking to much protein. I have suffered with the pain in the pads of my feet I love to run and I do some weights and was trying to build some muscle so I was drinking 2 protein drinks a day on top of lots of eggs plant based diet no dairy. Now the last few months I have had problems with my back have been going to chiropractor who has put me on a rest period has been 15 days but no better actually pain is kinda through out my body now. The chiropractor told me not to drink protein drinks for 2 weeks and to walk when I can and put me on vitamins. What kind of doctor did you go to for this? Thanks for letting people know about your struggles with this problem I want to get through this and hope I can get back to my exercise I worked out 6 days a week and so i really would like to be able to get back to that and get rid of the pain! Thanks Trish

  10. Thank you for sharing this story! About a year ago, I decided to jump on a more Paleo type diet and my health began to slowly get worse. I cut out sugar and cut down fruit and I started suffering from depression. Then after my child was born, I began experiencing inflammation and pain in certain areas, especially my neck and upper back. It then started to effect my wrist, my arm and then both arms. I was also having some discomfort in my legs. I went on an even more strict (anti-Candida) diet and the symptoms became more pronounced. I was getting exhausted hours after eating chicken. Even with enzyme supplements and Betaine HCL, I was wiped out after meals and having painful inflammation attacks in my upper back. I finally decided to try a day without any animal protein and just eat other sources including oats, yogurt, and even some bananas. No pain, muscle aches, chest tightness and no feeling exhausted! I’m going to experiment with whether or not I can eat any at all in small amounts or if I have to switch to other sources going forward. It’s bizarre, but I’m glad there’s an explanation behind it.

  11. Hey David,

    I’ve been lifting weights since last six year. This year in February, I was diagnosed with elbow tendonitis in right hand. Then I got same diagnosis for left hand too! The pain then went to my left knee and I realized this is not tendonitis. Looking back at my workout schedule and diet, I wasn’t sleeping enough and was eating way too much protein >200gm. Most of my protein was from turkey(a high purine food). I have been to numerous doctors by now. Blood work is negative for auto immune diseases. I think eating too much protein lead me to this condition. I had a hard time convincing myself to stop working out because it aggravates pain. Recently, I have come across more and more people like you who have body pains because of high protein intake.

    If you figure out a way to get back to gym and deal with this pain, please share here. There are a lot of athletes out there trying out random things just because their doctors are not able to figure out what’s going on. Moreover, my doctor ended up recommending me to keep taking a high protein diet.

    • Nitin,

      A simple blood test can tell if your Uric Acid levels are high. Mine were through the roof. Normal uric acid in the blood should rate around a 2 or 3 maybe for most people. I was at nearly 12. I am now on 500mg of Allopurinol and it has allowed me to be more functional and get back into the gym. I do have to watch my protein sources. I don’t eat much turkey anymore and I have found that shrimp will spike my uric acid levels and cause a gout attack even with the medication. So I don’t eat shrimp anymore either. You can get your 200mg of protein in…but make sure a good portion of it is vegetable based. The only dairy I really eat now days is yogurt, which seems to work as well.

      Good luck.

  12. Thanks! I have been suffering for about 2 weeks in and out of emergency room with excruciating pain. Was diagnosed today but it takes like… 2 months to see a rheumatologist, I’m going to call and complain tomorrow. This article really helped me, bless you kind sir!!! I’m starting this plan of action today for better health.

    Thanks God and please keep up your blogging posts.

    BigTony

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