Plant-Based Diets and Kidney Disease


Plant-based diets have become very popular in recent years. Many people have been led to believe that you can’t follow a plant-based or vegetarian diet if you have kidney disease. But recent studies suggest that people with kidney disease can follow a plant-based diet if they know how to do it correctly. The National Kidney Foundation recommends vegetarianism, or part-time vegetarianism as being beneficial to kidney patients.

What is a plant-based diet? Although the term “plant-based diet” has not been officially defined by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, it is generally a diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds. It’s not by definition, a “vegetarian” or “vegan” diet. In a nutshell, it favors plant food sources rather than animal sources. A healthy plant-based diet also limits highly processed foods, canned soups, refined grains, snack foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. Combination foods with animal products like pizza, meat or cheese-based soups, butter and mayonnaise are also avoided.

Studies show that if you have early kidney disease, you may benefit from a plant-based diet. It can keep you at a healthy weight, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, lower risk for diabetes, give you higher antioxidant levels, and keep your kidney disease from getting worse.  Generally if you have chronic kidney disease (CKD) you are instructed to limit the protein in your diet. However, modifying the source of protein rather than restricting amount of protein may be effective.

A dietitian can help you create a meal plan that works for you. If you are vegan (meaning zero animal derived foods) and are on dialysis because of end stage kidney failure (ESRD) there are a few studies that suggest a vegan diet is not adequate. The dialysis process removes large amounts of protein from your body. On a vegan diet, it is difficult to consume enough protein to replace losses and maintain proper potassium and phosphorus levels. Powder or liquid protein supplements may be an option for patients unable to meet their protein needs with food alone.

There is no one diet that is right for everyone with kidney disease or kidney failure. Your diet will change over time, depending on the function of your kidneys and whether or not you have other health conditions like hypertension, heart disease or diabetes. Did you know that plant foods can actually provide high quality protein that is equivalent to animal protein?  “Complementary proteins” are plant proteins that when combined make essential amino acids. Essential means they are not synthesized in the human body therefore need to be obtained from food. There are nine types of essential amino acids, including: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Animal foods contain all nine essential amino acids.  Plant foods on the other hand, lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Therefore, by combining certain foods, you can make the equivalent of animal foods! Some examples of food pairings that make complementary proteins are soups or stews that include legumes and grains:

  • · salads made with beans and nuts or seeds
  • · peanut butter on whole-grain bread
  • · hummus with whole-wheat pita bread
  • · tofu or tempeh with brown rice or quinoa
  • · tofu stir-fry with whole-grain noodles and peanuts
  • · beans and brown rice

So it is possible to stay on a plant-based diet yet have adequate dietary protein! If you prefer to follow a plant-based diet, work with a dietitian to determine your protein needs and to help you choose foods that will give you the right nutrients in the right amounts.  

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