Make the Right Food Choices to Keep Your Kidneys Healthy

When it comes to staying healthy and preventing chronic disease, the heart and brain tend to get most of the attention. But your kidneys are also key to maintaining good health. They help remove waste from your body, regulate blood pressure, balance fluid levels and even produce a form of vitamin D that helps build strong bones. So what does it take to keep the kidneys in top form? Hydration, a healthy diet, weight control, and plenty of exercise.

“Keeping your kidneys healthy involves choosing a dietary pattern that can help prevent conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure that can cause kidney disease,” says Kim Valenza, RD, CDE, CDN, senior clinical dietitian in the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. “For example, limiting sodium is important in controlling blood pressure, and high blood pressure can cause kidney failure.”

A low-sodium solution

One of the most important dietary concerns affecting the kidneys is sodium. Consuming too much sodium can tip the delicate balance of sodium, potassium, and fluids in the body. It can lead to high blood pressure, which can strain the blood vessels in the kidneys. A salty diet also can put a burden on the kidneys to flush out the excess sodium and fluids.

To help lower the amount of sodium you eat, avoid or minimize your intake of processed foods, cured meats, cheese, and fast food—all of which tend to be high in sodium, Valenza says. Read labels closely, even in foods that you might not think of as being high in sodium, such as bread, breakfast cereal and cottage cheese.

A Mediterranean-style diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and lean protein sources, with little or no red meat and added sugar, is good both for the heart and the kidneys. In general, you want to avoid or at least minimize your consumption of foods that contain a lot of sugar or saturated fats. Ice cream, baked goods, soda and sports drinks should be limited in your diet, Valenza says.

Watch your protein portions


  • There are several types of herbal supplements that could be harmful to kidneys. Among them are ginseng, licorice, horse chestnut, and blue cohosh. Others also may be dangerous, so be sure to tell your doctor about all supplements you take.
  • Cranberries are good for your kidneys because they can help prevent urinary tract infections. However, avoid cranberry juice drinks or “cocktails” that contain a lot of added sugar.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight lowers your risk of heart disease and diabetes, both of which can lead to kidney disease. Having kidney disease also can raise your risk of cardiovascular disease and other health complications.

The kidneys also are responsible for filtering out excess protein. Usually, that’s not a problem. “For healthy functioning kidneys protein is not a concern,” Valenza says. “Many people eat more protein than their body requires, but their kidneys are able to process and excrete it without a problem.”

But as you age, your kidneys start to function less efficiently, and too much protein in your diet can be harmful.

“Since your kidney function can be decreased without producing any signs or symptoms, it is ideal to eat an adequate, but not excessive, amount of protein,” Valenza says. “A good rule of thumb is to consume about 50 grams of protein per day. When eating high-protein foods such as chicken, meat, or fish, aim for a portion the size of a deck of cards or an iPhone (about three ounces).”

She adds that for people with chronic kidney disease, the amount and type of protein is very important. Choosing plant protein from beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy, will be better for your kidneys than red meat or poultry.

Stay hydrated

Valenza also notes that adequate hydration is essential for kidney health. Water is best. She adds that caffeinated beverages and alcohol should be kept to a minimum, because they contribute to dehydration.

Aim for one ounce of water or non-caffeinated fluid for every 2.2 pounds of body weight, she says. Or simply try for about two quarts, or eight 8-ounce glasses, a day, unless your doctor has recommended otherwise.

Kidney disease patients may be advised to restrict fluid intake to avoid stressing the kidneys. “But if you do not have kidney disease, and you’re making normal amounts of urine, no restriction is needed,” Valenza says. “It’s very hard to get too much fluid.” 

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