If you have or are at risk for kidney disease, you can enhance your health by including plenty of plants as part of your overall protein intake. You may be thinking, "protein from plants?" Yes! There are lots of plant-based foods that can help you meet your protein goals.
Research on the types of protein consumed by people with kidney disease makes it clear that consuming more plant proteins can have some benefits. When many people think of protein, the first foods that come to mind are animal-based foods, like eggs, poultry, beef, pork, dairy products and more. However, people are typically a little less clear about plant proteins. Plant proteins come from foods like beans, nuts and seeds, as well as lentils and peas, also known as legumes or pulses. These foods contain soy, which is processed into common food items like tofu, soymilk and miso.
What does the research say about plant protein vs. animal protein when it comes to people with or at risk for kidney disease?
- Plant proteins can reduce a person's risk for developing kidney disease. A study published in 2020 examined the relationship between total protein, plant protein and animal protein intake and the risk of kidney disease. The study, in which more than 1,600 adults participated over six years, showed a protective role of plant-based protein in a kidney-friendly meal plan. This means plant proteins offered more protection for the kidneys than animal protein. The reason for this is because red meat and processed meat contain more sodium and saturated fat, which has a strong connection with the risk of kidney disease. Plant proteins contain healthier fasts and less sodium, offering more protection against developing kidney disease. The benefits of plant proteins go beyond sodium and fats; since they contain calcium, magnesium and vitamin C, eating plant proteins can reduce the acid load in meals, which can actually improve kidney function.
- Plant proteins can lead to fewer deaths from kidney disease. If you have kidney disease stage 3 or later, you likely have been told by your kidney doctor or dietitian to closely monitor and limit your protein intake. But recommendations about the types of proteins you should consume have been less clear. A 2021 study of more than 1,100 people found that death rates tend to be much higher for people who consume animal protein compared to people who consume mainly plant proteins — among people with kidney disease and in the general population. Eating plant proteins only resulted in a lower risk of death. No negative effects have yet to be shown for those who consume only plant-based protein.
It is important to remember that plants contain other beneficial nutrients as well. Plant foods are rich in other vitamins, minerals and health-supporting substances. Fiber, for example, is only found in plant foods and is important for blood sugar control, heart health and lowering your saturated fat intake. Since people with kidney disease often also have diabetes and/or heart disease, plant foods can help you keep your levels for these other conditions in a healthy range.
Such new research begs the question – does this mean that people with kidney disease should go plant-based or vegan? Changing your food lifestyle is a personal choice, and kidney disease experts are not currently advocating for going fully plant-based or vegan. But, the research suggests that people with kidney disease consider including more plant proteins to animal proteins in their kidney-friendly food and fluid plan. Our FamilyCook Productions recipes on the American Kidney Fund's Kidney Kitchen® can easily support your journey into plant-based proteins. Tasty recipes — such as our Scrambled Tofu, Curried Tofu Salad or Japanese Tofu with Mushrooms — are each quite different but all are very satisfying. Delicious recipes using various beans and lentils — such as our Tuscan Bean Soup, Jamaican Rice and Beans and Persian Rice with Raisins and Lentils — are equally satisfying and enjoyable. And protein-rich nuts and seeds are featured in our Salad of Hearts of Palm with Candied Walnuts and Pasta with Golden Beets and Walnuts.
Of course, protein requirements and restrictions can differ for everyone, so it is best to speak with a dietitian about how plant proteins can fit into your own kidney-friendly food and fluid plan. But one thing is certain — the more you learn to enjoy all types of plant foods and consider choosing more plant proteins over meat proteins, the better prepared you will be to manage your health.