The American Kidney Fund is pleased to add 111 new recipes to our award-winning Kidney Kitchen™ website contributed by renal dietitian Susan Zogheib, MHS, RD, LDN. Susan is a nutrition expert and a bestselling author of five cookbooks, including a collection of renal diet cookbooks that help people with kidney disease meet the food and fluid recommendations set by their doctors and dietitians: Renal Diet Cookbook: The Low Sodium, Low Potassium, Healthy Kidney Cookbook; Renal Diet Cookbook for the Newly Diagnosed: The Complete Guide to Managing Kidney Disease and Avoiding Dialysis; The Mediterranean Diet Plan: Heart-Healthy Recipes & Meal Plans for Every Type of Eater; Renal Diet Plan and Cookbook: The Optimal Nutrition Guide to Manage Kidney Disease; and The Easy Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan: 4 Weeks to Jump-start Your Journey to Lifelong Health.
We recently spoke with Susan about her experience as a renal dietitian, why she loves working with kidney patients and the advice she has for kidney-friendly eating.
Why did you become a dietitian?
I grew up in the Middle East, so I was always around family, food and lots of flavors. I guess I was destined to become a dietitian because I love food so much. My motto since day one of becoming a registered dietitian is "your health is your wealth" because without your health, you really have nothing at all.
Why did you choose to focus on dialysis patients in your work?
It wasn't until my internship at a hospital in Philadelphia that I became interested in working specifically with people who have kidney disease. For my internship, I worked under a dietitian at the hospital who worked with dialysis patients. She had a presentation she gave to the dialysis patients that really touched me. There was something about that patient population that made me feel like they needed me. I have felt that working with dialysis patients has been my calling ever since. People with kidney disease need someone to advocate for them and that's why I really gravitate to my patients.
How is working with people who have kidney disease different than working with people who have other conditions?
I have about 15 years of clinical experience and have spent the last 10 years focusing on dialysis patients. I've also worked with other diverse patient populations, including oncology patients and people with gastrointestinal disorders. Those patients don't necessarily have other conditions connected to diet, but many kidney disease patients have diabetes and/or high blood pressure, or other underlying health conditions, so nutrition is very important for them.
Working with kidney patients has taught me to appreciate life more and not take things for granted. Kidney disease is complex and not like other diseases — people on dialysis have to go to dialysis for the rest of their life or until they get a transplant, and they have to take care of themselves so they don't get worse. What you eat affects how successful your dialysis treatments are and how well you feel every day.
How do patients feel when they meet with you for the first time?
When patients first come to me, they are usually very overwhelmed. It's not just the diet that's overwhelming, but the entire lifestyle changes you need to make as a dialysis patient.
I tell patients just starting out that the kidney diet doesn't have to be as complicated as it seems. It's really about correcting or controlling eating habits that may have contributed to their kidney disease or underlying conditions. I like to frame it around the "your health is your wealth" motto and turn it into a positive — if you take care of your health by eating kidney-friendly foods, you can add years onto your life. Really, everyone should be eating low-fat, low-sodium, healthy foods, so it's not just kidney patients who should build new habits. Of course, kidney patients also need to pay attention to nutrients like potassium and phosphorus that people who don't have kidney disease may not have to look at as closely.
What advice do you have for people who are feeling overwhelmed with their new food and fluid recommendations?
Take baby steps and go one day or one habit at a time. If you know you have diabetes, start out by focusing on foods that are low in sugar, then move on to controlling other nutrients. The same goes for people who have high blood pressure — start out by focusing on eating low-sodium foods. Also remember to always take your binders as prescribed, if your doctor has prescribed them for you!
I've found that it takes most people 30-45 days to break a habit, so don't give up if you struggle to adapt to a new way of eating at first. Step back, take a deep breath, and know that you are not alone and that you can do this.
What advice do you have for people in the earlier stages of kidney disease who want to slow down or stop the progression to kidney failure?
If you've just been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, you should focus on learning as much as you can about kidney-friendly eating so you can become an active participant in your food and fluid plan. Take your health into your own hands and become motivated to make changes to protect it. If you're committed to heathy eating, you'll be empowered to live a healthier life.
Can you share a patient success story?
One of the most rewarding things about writing cookbooks for people with kidney disease is that I get to hear from people who aren't patients I treat in person. I just heard from a patient who has been using my books to help guide him through the kidney diet. He told me he had been sticking to the eating plans in my books for two years, starting soon after he was diagnosed with kidney disease. He told me the books changed his life and helped him slow down his progression to kidney failure. He was able to get a kidney transplant after 10 months on the waiting list without ever needing to start dialysis.