Be Good to Your Kidneys with a Plant-Based Diet

By Gail Torres, National Kidney Foundation
December 7, 2018 Updated: December 7, 2018

Why eat a plant-based diet? Limiting meat and processed foods may just keep your kidneys working well and help ward off life-threatening chronic kidney disease (CKD).

CKD is on the rise in the United States—30 million people are estimated to have it—and most of those suffering from the illness don’t know it. Symptoms can remain silent until it advances to life-threatening kidney failure, which must be treated with dialysis or a kidney transplant.

A plant-based diet may help control weight, maintain healthy blood sugar levels and blood pressure, produce less dietary acid load, suppress inflammation, and reduce intake of saturated fats—all factors that have been associated with better health. Even going meatless one day a week may help. The Meatless Monday initiative encourages Americans to make healthier changes to their diets. Studies suggest that incorporating meatless options into an overall balanced diet may help slow the progression of kidney disease.

Plant-based means eating mostly whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), unsalted nuts, and healthy oils, while reducing animal-based proteins, such as dairy, eggs, fish, meat, and poultry.

To make a plant-based diet as healthy as possible, you should also avoid preservatives, which are often added to some processed foods that include:

    • many types of canned foods and soups;
    • refined grains found in processed bread, pasta, and white rice;
    • refined or highly sugared cereals;
    • snacks, such as certain types of packaged cookies and sugar-sweetened beverages.Many preservatives are made from inorganic phosphates, which, in excess, are not good for kidney health.

Pick from several diets like the Mediterranean diet or the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet to get started. These diets emphasize plant-based foods to improve overall health. Be aware, however, because these diets are not usually appropriate for people on dialysis. Their diets need to be individualized, especially regarding potassium intake, which can be high with these diets. Patients should work with their renal dietitian. Millions of Americans don’t know they have CKD. Two simple tests—one blood and one urine—can detect CKD and all people at risk for CKD should be tested each year by their primary care professional.

In the meantime, all people should do what they can to live a healthy lifestyle to maintain kidney function.

The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) recommends the top 10 ways to keep your kidney’s healthy:

    • Maintain a healthy weight;
    • Don’t smoke;
    • Exercise regularly;
    • Follow a healthy diet;
    • Don’t overuse non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or other over the counterpainkillers;
    • Maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels;
    • Maintain healthy blood sugar levels;
    • Find out if CKD runs in your family;
    • Get tested for kidney disease;
    • Have a yearly physical exam.

NKF wants everyone to understand the risks and consequences of kidney disease and to do what they can to keep their kidneys in good health. CKD is a serious illness that places an enormous burden on patients and their families. Prevention and early detection are the best ways to avoid developing CKD or from making it worse.

About Kidney Disease

In the United States, 30 million adults are estimated to have chronic kidney disease—and most aren’t aware of it. 1 in 3 American adults is at risk for chronic kidney disease. Risk factors for kidney disease include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and family history. People of African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander descent are at increased risk of developing the disease. African Americans are 3 times more likely than Whites, and Hispanics are nearly 1.5 times more likely than non-Hispanics to develop end-stage renal disease (kidney failure).

Gail Torres, RN, MS, RD, is a nurse and registered dietitian at National Kidney Foundation responsible for developing educational programming. 

The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) is the largest, most comprehensive and longstanding organization dedicated to the awareness, prevention, and treatment of kidney disease. For more information about the NKF visit www.kidney.org or call 855-NKF-CARES.

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