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Kidney-Friendly Diet and Foods:
Healthy Eating for People with Chronic Kidney Disease 

You need to have a “kidney-friendly” meal plan when you have chronic kidney disease.  Watching what you eat and drink will help you stay healthier.  This section of our website is for people who have kidney disease but are not on dialysis. It describes a kidney-friendly diet and why it is important.

Here, you will learn about:

  • The basics of a healthy meal plan
  • What makes a kidney-friendly meal plan different
  • Special steps for people with diabetes
  • Where to find more information

Keep this in mind . . .

This is only general information. Nutrition needs vary from person to person depending on body size, activity, the stage of kidney disease and other health concerns.  Talk to a renal dietitian, someone who specializes in the kidney-friendly diet, to find a meal plan that meets your needs.

Your doctor can suggest a dietitian, or you can find one through the American Dietetic Association at www.eatright.org or 1.800.87.1600. Medicare and many insurance plans will help pay for sessions with a dietitian. Check with your insurance to see if it will cover Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT).

Why is an eating plan important?

What you eat affects your health.  Maintaining a healthy weight and following a balanced meal plan that is low in salt can help you control your blood pressure.  If you have diabetes, your meal plan is also important in controlling your blood sugar. Controlling high blood pressure and diabetes may also help slow down kidney disease.

A kidney-friendly diet may also help. It limits certain minerals in the foods you eat.  This helps keep waste from building up in your blood and may help prevent other health problems.

We’ll start by reviewing the basics of a healthy meal plan.  Then, we’ll take a look at the kidney-friendly meal plan and some helpful kidney-friendly resources.

Healthy diet basics

All meal plans, including the kidney-friendly diet, need to take into account some of the same things, like:

  • Calories
  • Protein
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fat
  • Nutrition Facts
  • Portion

In this section, we’ll review each of these and how they relate to the kidneys.  We’ll also take a look at the nutrition facts label and explain how you can use this tool to help you have a healthy diet. 

Calories

Your body gets energy from the calories you eat and drink. Calories come from the protein, carbohydrates and fat in your diet. How many calories you need depends on your age, sex, body size and activity level. 

You may also need to adjust how many calories you eat based on your weight goals. Some people will need to limit the calories they eat. Others may need to have more calories. Your doctor or dietitian can help you figure out how many calories you should have each day. Work with your dietitian to make a meal plan that helps you get the right amount of calories, and keep in close contact for suport and follow-up.

Protein

Protein is one of the building blocks of your body.  Your body needs protein to grow, heal and stay healthy. Having too little protein can cause your skin, hair and nails to be weak. But having too much protein can also be a problem.  To stay healthy and help you feel your best, you may need to adjust how much protein you eat.

The amount of protein you should have depends on your body size, activity level and health concerns. Some doctors recommend that people with kidney disease limit protein or change their source of protein. This is because a diet very high in protein can make the kidneys work harder and may cause more damage. Ask your doctor or dietitian how much protein you should have and what the best sources of protein are for you.
 
Use the table below to learn which foods are low or high in protein. Keep in mind that just because a food is low in protein, it is not healthy to eat unlimited amounts.

 Lower-protein foods

 Higher-protein foods

 Bread  Meat
 Fruits  Poultry
 Vegetables  Fish
 Pasta and rice  Eggs

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates (“carbs”) are the easiest kind of energy for your body to use. Healthy sources of carbohydrates include fruits and vegetables. Unhealthy sources of carbohydrates include sugar, honey, hard candies, soft drinks and other sugary drinks. 

Some carbohydrates are high in potassium and phosphorus, which you may need to limit depending on your stage of kidney disease. We'll talk about this in more detail a little later. You may also need to watch your carbohydrates carefully if you have diabetes. Your dietitian can help you learn more about the carbohydrates in your meal plan and how they affect your blood sugar.

Fat

You need some fat in your meal plan to stay healthy. Fat gives you energy and helps you use some of the vitamins in your food. But too much fat can lead to weight gain and heart disease. Try to limit fat in your meal plan, and choose healthier fats when you can.

Healthier fat or “good” fat is called unsaturated fat. Examples of unsaturated fat include:

  • Olive oil
  • Vegetable oils

Unsaturated fat can help reduce cholesterol. If you need to gain weight, try to eat more unsaturated fat. If you need to lose weight, limit the unsaturated fat in your meal plan. As always, moderation is the key. Too much “good” fat can also cause problems.

Saturated fat, also known as “bad” fat, can raise your cholesterol level and put you at risk for heart disease. Examples of saturated fats include:

  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Shortening
  • Meats

Limit these in your meal plan. Choose healthier, unsaturated fat instead. Trimming the fat from meat and removing the skin from chicken or turkey can also help limit saturated fat.

Sodium

Sodium (salt) is a mineral found in almost all foods. Too much sodium can make you thirsty, which can lead to swelling and raise your blood pressure. This can damage your kidneys more and make your heart work harder.

One of the best things that you can do to stay healthy is to limit how much sodium you eat. To limit sodium in your meal plan:

  • Do not add salt to your food when cooking or eating. Try cooking with fresh herbs, lemon juice or other salt-free spices.
  • Choose fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned vegetables. If you do use canned vegetables, drain and rinse them to remove extra salt before cooking or eating them.
  • Avoid processed meats like ham, bacon, sausage and lunch meats.
  • Munch on fresh fruits and vegetables rather than crackers or other salty snacks.
  • Avoid canned soups and frozen dinners that are high in sodium.
  • Avoid pickled foods, like olives and pickled.
  • Limit high-sodium condiments like soy sauce, BBQ sauce and ketchup.
 Important! Be careful with salt substitutes and "reduced sodium" foods. Many salt substitutes are high in potassium. Too much potassium can be dangerous for someone with kidney disease. Work with your dietitian to find low-sodium foods that are also low in potassium.

Nutrition Facts

Use the Nutrition Facts section on food labels to learn more about what is in the foods you eat.  The Nutrition Facts will tell you how much protein, carbohydrates, fat and sodium are in each serving of a food.  This can help you pick foods that are high in the nutrients you need and low in the nutrients you should limit.

When you look at the Nutrition Facts, there are a few key areas that will give you the information you need:

Portions

Choosing healthy foods is a great start, but eating too much of even healthy foods can be a problem. The other part of a healthy diet is portion control, or watching how much you eat.

To help control your portions:

  • Eat slowly, and stop eating when you are not hungry any more. It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you are full.  If you eat too quickly, you may eat more than you need.
  • Check the Nutrition Facts on a food to learn the true serving size. Many packages have more than one serving.  For example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda is really two-and-a-half servings.
  • Avoid eating while doing something else, like watching TV or driving. When you are distracted you may not realize how much you have eaten.
  • Do not eat directly from the package the food came in. Instead, take out one serving of food, and put the bag or box away.

Good portion control is an important part of any meal plan. It is even more important in a kidney-friendly meal plan, because you may need to limit how much of certain things you eat and drink. Keep reading to learn more!

How is a kidney-friendly diet different?

When your kidneys are not working as well as they should, waste and fluid build up in your body. Over time, the waste and extra fluid can cause heart, bone and other health problems.  A kidney-friendly meal plan limits how much of certain minerals and fluid you eat and drink.  This can help keep the waste and fluid from building up and causing problems. 

How strict your meal plan should be depends on your stage of kidney disease. In the early stages of kidney disease, you may have little or no limits on what you eat and drink.  As your kidney disease gets worse, your doctor may recommend that you limit:

  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus
  • Fluids

Potassium

Potassium is a mineral found in almost all foods. Your body needs some potassium to make your muscles work, but too much potassium can be dangerous. When your kidneys are not working well, your potassium level may be too high or too low. Having too much or too little potassium can cause muscle cramps, irregular heartbeat and muscle weakness. 

Many people with kidney disease will need to limit potassium. Ask your doctor or dietitian if you need to limit potassium.

Use the table below to learn which foods are low or high in potassium. Your dietitian can also help you work in small amounts of your favorite foods that are high in potassium.

 Eat this ... (lower-potassium foods)

 Rather than ... (higher-potassium foods)

 Apples, cranberries, grapes, pineapples and strawberries  Avocados, bananas, melons, oranges, prunes and raisins
 Cauliflower, onions, peppers, radishes, summer and zucchini squash, lettuce  Artichokes, kale, plantains, spinach, potatos and tomatoes
 Pita, tortillas and white breads  Bran products and granola
 Beef and chicken, white rice  Beans (baked, black, pinto, etc.), brown or wild rice

Phosphorus

Phosphorus is a mineral found in many foods. It works with calcium and vitamin D to keep bones healthy. Healthy kidneys keep the right balance of phosphorus in your body. When your kidneys are not working well, phosphorus can build up in your blood.  Too much phosphorus in your blood can lead to weak bones that break easily.

Many people with kidney disease need to limit phosphorus. Ask your dietitian if you need to limit phosphorus.

Depending on your stage of kidney disease, your doctor may also prescribe a medicine called a phosphate binder. This helps to keep phosphorus from building up in your blood. A phosphate binder can be helpful, but you will still need to watch how much phosphorus you eat. Ask your doctor if a phosphate binder is right for you.

Eat this ... (lower-phosphorous foods) 

 Rather than ... (higher-phosphorous foods)

Italian, French or sourdough bread  Whole-grain bread
Corn or rice cereals and cream of wheat  Bran cereals and oatmeal 
Unsalted popcorn  Nuts and sunflower seeds 
Some light-colored sodas and lemonade  Dark-colored colas 

Fluids

You need water to live, but when you have kidney disease, you may not need as much. This is because damaged kidneys do not get rid of extra fluid as well as they should. Too much fluid in your body can be dangerous. It can cause high blood pressure, swelling and heart failure. Extra fluid can also build up around your lungs and make it hard to breathe.

Depending on your stage of kidney disease and your treatment, your doctor may tell you to limit fluid. If your doctor tells you this, you will need to cut back on how much you drink. You may also need to cut back on some foods that contain a lot of water. Soups or foods that melt, like ice, ice cream and gelatin, have a lot of water.  Many fruits and vegetables are high in water, too. 

Ask your doctor or dietitian if you need to limit fluids.

If you do need to limit fluids, measure your fluids and drink from small cups to help you keep track of how much you’ve had to drink. Limit sodium to help cut down on thirst. At times, you may still feel thirsty. To help quench your thirst, you might try to:

  • Chew gum
  • Rinse your mouth
  • Suck on a piece of ice, mints or hard candy (Remember to pick sugar-free candy if you have diabetes.)

Other meal plan concerns

Vitamins

A kidney-friendly meal plan may make it hard to get all of the vitamins and minerals you need. To help you get the right balance of vitamins and minerals, your dietitian may suggest a special supplement made for people with kidney disease.

Your doctor or dietitian might also suggest a special kind of vitamin D, folic acid or iron pill, to help avoid some common side effects of kidney disease, like bone disease and anemia.

Regular multi-vitamins may not be healthy for you if you have kidney disease. They may have too much of some vitamins and not enough of others. Talk to your doctor or dietitian to find vitamins that are right for you.

Important! Tell your doctor and dietitian about any vitamins, supplements or over-the-counter medicines you are taking.  Some may be harmless, but others can damage your kidneys more or cause other health problems.  

What if I have diabetes?

Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure. Diabetes can also damage other parts of your body, like your eyes and heart. If you have diabetes, you will need to watch your blood sugar and diet to stay healthy. Work with your dietitian to make a kidney-friendly meal plan that helps you keep your blood sugar in control and prevent other health problems.

A diabetes educator can also help you learn how to control your blood sugar. Ask your doctor to refer you to a diabetes educator in your area. You can also get a list of diabetes educators from the American Association of Diabetes Educators at www.diabeteseducator.org or 1.800.338.3633.  Medicare and many insurance companies may help pay for sessions with a diabetes educator.

Learn how to manage diabetes here 

Summary

A well-balanced meal plan is important for good health. It is even more important for people with kidney disease, because it may help prevent further kidney damage. Work with your dietitian to make a meal plan that helps you get the right amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat and sodium. Depending on your stage of kidney disease, you may also need to limit your potassium, phosphorus and fluids. Your dietitian can help you with this as well.

Your doctor can refer you to a dietitian, or you can find one through the American Dietetic Association at www.eatright.org or 1.800.877.1600

Online Recipes

DaVita
www.davita.com/recipes 
www.davita.com/diethelper

Kidney Kitchen
National Kidney Foundation
www.kidney.org/patients/kidneyktichen

Kidney Times
Renal Support Network
www.kidneytimes.com

Northwest Kidney Centers
www.nwkidney.org

Kidney-Friendly Cookbooks

Brilliant Eats: Simple and Delicious Recipes for Anyone Who Wants to be Kidney Wise
Kelly L. Welsh, RD, CD
www.brillianteats.com
1.866.524.6732

Calabash Cookbook for Kidney Health
National Kidney Foundation of Hawaii
www.kidneyhi.org
1.800.488.2277

Carbohydrate & Sodium Controlled Recipes
CRN No. California/No. Nevada
www.crn-norcal.org
415.353.7725

Chinese Renal Kitchen
BC Chinese Nutrition Consultants
604.806.8141

Cooking the Renal Way
Oregon Council on Renal Nutrition
503.371.8047

Creative Cooking for Renal Diabetic Diets
Creative Cooking for Renal Diets
Cleveland Clinic Foundation
www.patientsupport.net
1.800.247.6553

The Gourmet Renal Cookbook
Sharon Stall, RD
212.434.3266

The Kidney Helper Cookbook
Bob and Natalie Lufty with Mary Pinto, RD
www.consumermedhelp.com
1.877.248.2331

Kidney Kids’ Cookbook
Kay Anderson, Frances Buchanan, Linda Tyler
Edited by Betsy Watson
1.800.282.0190

Now You’re Cooking:  A Resource for People with Kidney Disease
Council on Renal Nutrition of New England
www.kidneyhealth.org
1.800.542.4001

Renal Lifestyles Manual
Peggy Harum, RD, LD
Available in bookstores.

The Renal Patient’s Guide to Good Eating
Judith Curtis
www.ccthomas.com
1.800.258.8980

Southern Comforts of Mississippi
National Kidney Foundation of Mississippi
www.kidneyms.org
1.800.232.1592

The Vegetarian Diet for Kidney Disease Treatment
Joan Brookhyser, RD, CSR, CD
Available in bookstores.

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