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NFL Hall of Fame RB Emmitt Smith tackles gout: Link between diet and arthritis

Most people think gout is a disease experienced only by elderly, overweight men who indulge in too much rich food and too much wine, with King Henry VIII of England as a prime example. In reality, however, gout is genetic and usually occurs in younger men, although factors such as diet can cause flare-ups and exacerbate symptoms. That's the case for NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, reported Sports Illustrated on July 9.

Get the inside story on a Dallas Cowboys running back.
Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys champion hopes to use his fame to spread the word about the condition. Now that it's nine years since his retirement from the NFL, Smith wants to help potential sufferers by publicizing what this form of arthritis involves.

Gout is a form of arthritis resulting from a buildup of uric acid in the blood. And the pain is severe, says Smith.

"The pain was so bad I had to take my shoe off and I couldn't walk around with a normal step, I had to walk on the outside of my foot," he recalls. Located in his right big toe, the pain escalated to an intolerable level.

Following his diagnosis and treatment, Smith decided to partner with Takeda Pharmaceuticals to make sure the condition receives the attention it deserves. Gout impacts more than eight million Americans.

In terms of a diet for gout, sufferers typically are advised to reduce or eliminate red meat, seafood and alcohol. Smith has learned to regard his favorite foods, including salmon and steak, as occasional rather than daily treats.

And he points out that a diagnosis of gout doesn't mean you need to stop exercising. Even though gout typically affects the big toe and hence affects the ability to walk or jog, once it's under control you can reap the benefits of fitness.

"I like to ride bikes – I just completed a 30-mile ride for diabetes for the first time," he revealed. "I try to ride at least two to three times a week to stay active."

In addition to dietary changes and medication, gout sufferers and those with other forms of arthritis typically are advised to lose weight as needed. Now a new study offers an intriguing insight to the theory that obesity and arthritis are linked. When the appetite hormone leptin is absent, the risk of arthritis is reduced regardless of weight, reported Headlines & Global News on July 11.

"We were completely surprised to find that mice that became extremely obese had no arthritis if their bodies didn't have leptin," said Farshid Guilak, PhD, who works at the Duke Department of Surgery. "Although there was some earlier evidence that leptin might be involved in the arthritis disease process, we didn't think that there would be no arthritis at all."

Previous research has shown that leptin impacts inflammation, which is a key factor in arthritis. In addition, leption affects hormone levels, weight and metabolism.

So does this mean that obese people do not have higher risks of arthritis, as previously assumed? The researchers declined to make that statement.

"If you are obese, there are benefits to losing weight in terms of arthritis," they said. "For example, if you are obese and lose just 10 pounds, pain decreases significantly."

One of the most common forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis, also is linked to diet and weight. Researchers recently discovered that healthy omega-3 fatty acids can make a significant difference, reported the Medical Daily on July 11.

"Our results suggest that dietary factors play a more significant role than mechanical factors in the link between obesity and osteoarthritis," said Guilak, senior author of the study. He noted that when compared to omega-3 fats, eating too many unhealthy fats can make osteoarthritis worse.

Building on the results of the leptin study, the researchers now are theorizing that "maybe it's not how much weight you gain, but what you eat," Guilak added. Mice who ate diets high in omega 6 fatty acids had more severe forms of arthritis, while those given omega 3 fatty acid supplements were healthier.

"While omega 3 fatty acids aren't reversing the injury, they appear to slow the progression of arthritis in this group of mice," Guilak explained. "In fact, omega 3 fatty acids eliminated the detrimental effects of obesity in obese mice."

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