April 13, 2012
Is it unhealthy to be a foodie?

foie gras.JPGBy now, we've all seen the reports -- and the various interpretations of the reports -- about red meat. While the Harvard study's data indicated that consumption of red meat was linked to an increased risk of mortality, others have said, "Not so fast." I'm in the skeptical camp, always wary of how statistics can be used and misused.

Men's Health, for instance, wisely notes that the massive Harvard study control group lacked controls and that eating red meat often goes hand in hand with other habits that may hasten mortality -- smoking, drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching "Hardcore Pawn" and "Storage Wars" until you pass out, just you, your booze and your cat, staring at you from the DVR box.

Then came news of "pink slime" in hamburger meat. That's simply disgusting and scary. If you want to avoid such nonsense, go to a butcher you trust -- Corti Brothers, Taylor's Market, Roseville Meat Co. come to mind. Pay a little more, buy a little less and worry not about pink slime. I'm also a fan of the ground beef at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. It's from Prather Ranch, a farm I have visited and have seen their responsible practices firsthand.

But now comes a more personal report, from former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who revealed on his blog he has been diagnosed with gout. It's a kind of inflammation around joints -- most commonly the big toe, for some reason -- and the pain can be unreasonably harsh. A flare up can prevent you from walking. In Bruni's case, it was so painful he couldn't even put on a sock.

The trigger for an episode? The kind of elaborate feasts foodies dream of. Fatty foods. Organ meat. Booze of all kinds. Excess. At the highest levels, that's pretty much how you'd sum up the typical 8-10 course chef's tasting menu at a Michelin 3-star restaurant. (The photo at the top of this piece is of the foie gras I had at Eleven Madison Park in New York).

"I can no longer get away with eating like that even a few times a month," Bruni writes, "and in fact haven't eaten like that in a while. It's unclear whether I'll ever eat like that again. About four and a half months ago I was given a diagnosis of gout, whose triggers are believed to include a surfeit of alcohol, a plenitude of red meat and any and all organ meat, the category into which foie gras, which is liver, most definitely falls."


Bruni's eating habits during his years as restaurant critic were extreme, to be sure. I understand the Times' budget for the critic's job is more than $300,000 annually. That's a lot of sweetbread, foie gras, lamb chops, fettuccine alfredo and Barolo. But gout afflicts an estimated six million Americans, including the co-founder of Sacramento's wildly successful Bacon Fest in January.

When I heard that Brian Guido had suffered a recent gout flare-up, I gave him a call. Guido is a musican and avid foodie, married to another foodie, Sarah Singleton, the woman behind the blog "Undercover Caterer." Their life is pretty much a celebration of good food. If they're not making it, talking about it or writing about it, they're planning some kind of new adventure with food as the focal point.

Guido had read the Bruni piece on gout, but he said it didn't scare him. Still, a recent and painful episode of his own prompted him to tone it down.

"Over this last two months, there has been a lot of excess in my life," he said, referring to Bacon Fest, a trip to Austin, the death of his father, with some drinking mixed in there somewhere. "I just think my body said, 'Hey, you should probably slow down a bit."

Guido said he was first diagnosed with gout in 2004 (doctors look for elevated uric acid levels).

"That one came out of the blue. I was lying in bed, I turned and had a bed sheet fall on my foot," he said. "It felt like someone was putting a really sharp rod through my toe."

All was fine again until three weeks ago when he experienced a similar kind of pain. The doctor confirmed it was gout and told him to drink plenty of water and take ibuprofen. He is not taking medication -- yet -- because the doctor informed him it tends to make people eat more. Friends told him to drink cherry juice, which seems to help.

"I then did my own research about what to drink and not drink, so I decided to put myself on a two-week diet without booze. If you're drinking a lot of booze, it makes your kidneys and your liver do double functions. Not only does it have to stabilize the uric acid, it has to filter the alcohol," he said. "Beer is the worst. A couple of glasses of wine might be beneficial."

Guido and his wife are still foodies, but the recent encounter with joint pain has made him look anew at his eating habits. He might not give up something like pork belly or bacon, but he might spread them out on the calendar out a little more.

"I would advise taking everything in moderation. I'm trying to do a balanced diet. I love vegetables, especially when they're in season. I'm going to have to change the way I go about things," he said. "And I'm drinking a lot more water, which is good for me."

So what's the other photo (above) doing here? That's what I had for breakfast this morning. I made juice, then stirred in a tablespoon of Udo's Choice "Wholesome Fast Food." Though I have been lucky to escape a food-related diagnosis, I want to be as healthy as possible. You simply can't go all-out all the time.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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