Maintaining kidney health is important to your overall health and general well-being. By keeping your kidneys healthy, your body will filter and expel waste properly and produce hormones to help your body function properly.
Your kidneys are fist-sized organs located at the bottom of your rib cage, on both sides of your spine. They perform several functions.
Most importantly, they filter waste products, excess water, and other impurities from your blood. These waste products are stored in your bladder and later expelled through urine.
In addition, your kidneys regulate pH, salt, and potassium levels in your body. They also produce hormones that regulate blood pressure and control the production of red blood cells.
Your kidneys are also responsible for activating a form of vitamin D that helps your body absorb calcium for building bones and regulating muscle function.
How Diet Can Impact Kidney Health
The kidneys are filled with tiny blood vessels that help filter waste and extra water from your blood and remove them from your body. If you have CKD, your kidneys can’t filter blood as well as they should, causing excess waste to build up in your body.
Diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure) are the two leading causes of kidney disease. High blood sugar levels in uncontrolled diabetes and high blood pressure can damage the kidney’s blood vessels, leaving them unable do their job properly, says Krista Maruschak, RD, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition.
“Untreated or uncontrolled diabetes and high blood pressure can have a significant effect on the development of CKD over time,” says Maruschak.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 10 percent of the U.S. population has diabetes and over a third of adults have prediabetes, while about half of American adults age 20 and over have hypertension. These individuals are also at an increased risk of developing CKD.
A healthy diet can help you prevent or manage conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, in part by helping you to maintain a healthy weight, says Maruschak. In turn, this supports your kidney health.
As part of a kidney-friendly diet, you may also need to limit certain foods to help prevent further kidney damage.
Keep your kidneys healthy
Have your kidney function tested if you’re at high risk
If you’re at high risk of kidney damage or kidney disease, it’s a good idea to have regular kidney function tests. The following people may benefit from regular screening:
- people who are over 60 years old
- people who were born at a low birth weight
- people who have cardiovascular disease or have family with it
- people who have or have a family history of high blood pressure
- people who are obese
- people who believe they may have kidney damage
A regular kidney function test is a great way to know your kidney’s health and to check for possible changes. Getting ahead of any damage can help slow or prevent future damage.
Be aware of the amount of OTC pills you take
If you regularly take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, you may be causing kidney damage. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen and naproxen, can damage your kidneys if you take them regularly for chronic pain, headaches, or arthritis.
People with no kidney issues who take the medicine occasionally are likely in the clear. However, if you use these medicines daily, you could be risking your kidneys’ health. Talk with your doctor about kidney-safe treatments if you’re coping with pain.
Smoking damages your body’s blood vessels. This leads to slower blood flow throughout your body and to your kidneys.
Smoking also puts your kidneys at an increased risk for cancer. If you stop smoking, your risk will drop. However, it’ll take many years to return to the risk level of a person who’s never smoked.
Drink plenty of fluids
There’s no magic behind the cliché advice to drink eight glasses of water a day, but it’s a good goal precisely because it encourages you to stay hydrated. Regular, consistent water intake is healthy for your kidneys.
Water helps clear sodium and toxins from your kidneys. It also lowers your risk of chronic kidney disease.
Aim for at least 1.5 to 2 liters in a day. Exactly how much water you need depends largely on your health and lifestyle. Factors like climate, exercise, gender, overall health, and whether or not you’re pregnant or breastfeeding are important to consider when planning your daily water intake.
People who have previously had kidney stones should drink a bit more water to help prevent stone deposits in the future.
Monitor weight and eat a healthy diet
People who are overweight or obese are at risk for a number of health conditions that can damage the kidneys. These include diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease.
A healthy diet that’s low in sodium, processed meats, and other kidney-damaging foods may help reduce the risk of kidney damage. Focus on eating fresh ingredients that are naturally low-sodium, such as cauliflower, blueberries, fish, whole grains, and more.
Monitor blood pressure
High blood pressure can cause kidney damage. If high blood pressure occurs with other health issues like diabetes, heart disease, or high cholesterol, the impact on your body can be significant.
A healthy blood pressure reading is 120/80. Prehypertension is between that point and 139/89. Lifestyle and dietary changes may help lower your blood pressure at this point.
If your blood pressure readings are consistently above 140/90, you may have high blood pressure. You should talk with your doctor about monitoring your blood pressure regularly, making changes to your lifestyle, and possibly taking medication.
Control your blood sugar
People with diabetes, or a condition that causes high blood sugar, may develop kidney damage. When your body’s cells can’t use the glucose (sugar) in your blood, your kidneys are forced to work extra hard to filter your blood. Over years of exertion, this can lead to life-threatening damage.
However, if you can control your blood sugar, you reduce the risk of damage. Also, if the damage is caught early, your doctor can take steps to reduce or prevent additional damage.
Keep active and fit
Regular exercise is good for more than just your waistline. It can lower the risk of chronic kidney disease. It can also reduce your blood pressure and boost your heart health, which are both important to preventing kidney damage.
You don’t have to run marathons to reap the reward of exercise. Walking, running, cycling, and even dancing are great for your health. Find an activity that keeps you busy and have fun. It’ll be easier to stick to it and have great results.
When things go wrong
A little more than 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 20 show evidence of kidney disease. Some forms of kidney disease are progressive, meaning the disease gets worse over time. When your kidneys can no longer remove waste from blood, they fail.
Waste buildup in your body can cause serious problems and lead to death. To remedy this, your blood would have to be filtered artificially through dialysis, or you would need a kidney transplant.
Diet Tips for Kidney HealthA kidney-friendly diet should limit sodium, cholesterol, and fat and instead focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meats (seafood, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products), says Maruschak. People who have already been diagnosed with CKD may also need to limit certain other nutrients, she adds.
Portion your plateAs a general rule of thumb, Maruschak suggests following the MyPlate method at every meal: Fill roughly half of your plate with vegetables and fruits, one quarter with lean protein, and one quarter with whole grains.
Limit your salt intake
Sodium sneaks its way into all sorts of places you wouldn’t imagine, especially packaged foods such as soups and breads. Limiting your sodium intake helps keep your blood pressure under control. Aim for 2,300 mg per day, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — that’s about 1 teaspoon of table salt.
If you’re at risk of or already have high blood pressure, Maruschak suggests following a low-sodium diet — specifically the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan. Also try these tips to keep your sodium in check:
- Limit ordering takeout and eating at restaurants. “Salt is often added to your food, and items used in restaurant kitchens may have added sodium,” says Maruschak. When you do eat out, do your research. You can sometimes find the sodium content of dishes on the restaurant’s website, she adds.
- Cook at home with whole, unprocessed foods. When you prepare meals at home using fresh ingredients, you control exactly how much sodium (and fat) goes into each bite.
- Get creative with seasonings. Maruschak suggests avoiding salt when cooking or at the table. Instead, use spices, herbs, lemon, and other sodium-free seasonings.
- Check the package. Any prepared food with 20 percent or more of your daily value of sodium is considered high-sodium. Choose soups, frozen meals, and other packaged foods labeled as reduced or low-sodium or salt-free whenever you can.
- Rinse canned foods before eating. This helps remove excess sodium.
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Be mindful of protein
When you eat protein, your body produces waste that’s filtered through your kidneys. While protein is an important part of a healthy diet, eating more protein than you need to may cause your kidneys to work harder. Although there needs to be more research on the effects of a high-protein diet on overall kidney health, your doctor will likely recommend a lower-protein diet if you already have CKD. “Having too much protein can cause waste to build up in your blood, and your kidneys may not be able to remove it,” Maruschak says.
People with any stage of CKD who aren’t on dialysis should limit their protein intake to 0.6 to 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight to reduce kidney disease progression, Maruschak says. For example, a person who weighs 150 pounds (68kg) would need 40 to 54 grams of protein per day, which is about 4 to 6 ounces of protein from animal or plant sources, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Be sure to speak with an RD to determine the right amount of protein for you.
Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with CKD, it can help to opt for healthier protein sources and watch your portion sizes. Good sources of protein include:
- Lean meat, fish, or skinless poultry (one portion size is 2 to 3 ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards)
- Dairy (one portion size of yogurt and milk is ½ cup, while one portion of cheese is 1 ounce — about the size of your two thumbs together)
- Beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas (one portion is ½ cup)
- Nuts (one portion is ¼ cup)
Choose complex carbs over simple carbs
Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy, and those that occur naturally in fresh foods are filled with fiber to support heart and gut health and keep your blood sugar levels steady. However, simple carbs — such as added sugars in desserts, sweetened beverages, and many packaged foods — can spike blood sugar and increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
As part of an overall healthy diet, you should limit sweets and foods with added sugars (check the label — they’re found in many surprising places, like fruit yogurt), says Maruschak. Healthier carbohydrate choices include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and lentils.
If you have diabetes and are on insulin, you may need to be even more careful about your carbohydrate intake. “It is likely that people will need to count carbohydrates at meal times so they can dose their insulin correctly,” says Maruschak.
Limit saturated fats and avoid trans fat
Diets that are high in saturated and trans fats increase the risk of heart disease — and what’s bad for your heart is bad for your kidneys. “Heart health and kidney health are interconnected, as the heart constantly pumps blood throughout the body and the kidneys continuously filter the blood in order to remove waste products and excess fluid from the body,” Maruschak says.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fats to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories. Main sources include meats, full-fat dairy products, butter, lard, coconut oil, and palm oil, says Maruschak. And try to avoid trans fats, found in baked goods and fried foods. Instead, fill up on heart-healthy unsaturated fats, found in fatty fish, avocados, olives, walnuts, and many types of vegetable oils.
Watch your alcohol intake
Alcohol harms your kidneys in several ways, explains Maruschak. It’s a waste product that your kidneys have to filter out of your blood — and it makes your kidneys less efficient. It’s dehydrating, which can affect the kidneys’ ability to regulate your body’s water levels. It can affect your liver function, which in turn can impact blood flow to the kidneys and lead to CKD over time. And a high alcohol intake has been liked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to kidney disease.
Maruschak says both men and women should drink no more than one alcoholic beverage per day. That’s 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces (one shot glass) of distilled spirits, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “It’s always best to speak with your physician about your alcohol intake, as some people should not be consuming any alcohol at all,” she says.
Talk to your doctor about whether you need to limit phosphorus and potassium
Phosphorus and potassium are minerals that your body needs for certain processes. Phosphorous helps build strong bones, while potassium helps regulate your heartbeat and keeps your muscles working properly.
If you have CKD, however, these minerals they can build up in your blood, causing problems throughout your body. High levels of phosphorus can pull calcium from your bones, making bones weak and more likely to break, and may cause itchy skin and bone and joint pain. You may need to limit foods high in phosphorous, such as animal protein, dairy, and dark-colored sodas. High levels of potassium (found in certain fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy) can cause heart problems. Your doctor will run blood tests to check your potassium and phosphorus levels. Be sure to ask if you’re not sure whether you need to keep tabs on your intake of these minerals.
Work with a dietitian
Making changes to your diet can be hard. If you’re struggling to stick to a healthy diet, a registered dietitian (RD) can help you to develop a meal plan that’s tailored to your individual needs.
“It can seem overwhelming to manage your diet,” says Maruschak. “An RD can help you to find foods that fit into your specific dietary requirements.”
What you can do to improve kidney health
Your kidneys are vital to your overall health. These organs are responsible for many functions, from processing body waste to making hormones. That’s why taking care of your kidneys should be a top health priority.
Maintaining an active, health-conscious lifestyle is the best thing you can do to make sure your kidneys stay healthy.
If you have a chronic health condition that increases your risk for kidney damage or kidney disease, you should also work closely with your doctor to watch for signs of loss of kidney function.