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Protein and the Kidney Diet

Protein is an important part of any diet, since our body relies on protein for many functions. First and foremost, protein’s job is to maintain the health and functioning of our tissues. Other roles played by protein in our body include helping us resist infection, maintaining and building strong muscles, assisting in digestion, keeping our skin and hair in good condition and helping to transport oxygen through the blood.

Proteins are actually strings of amino acids. In total, there are about 20 amino acids. Some can be produced by your liver, but there are nine, referred to as essential amino acids, that you can get only through the foods you eat. If you don’t eat enough of the right kinds of proteins, you can jeopardize your health.

When a food contains all nine essential amino acids, we call it a complete protein. Complete proteins are most animal-based foods, such as meat, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, milk and cheese. Some soy foods, such as tofu, are also complete proteins.

If a food is low in essential amino acids, it is considered an incomplete protein. Incomplete proteins include the plant proteins: seeds, nuts, legumes and grains. However, plant proteins can be combined with each other to create complete proteins.

Once you consume a protein food, your body works to break down the long strings of amino acids. The resulting single amino acids are used by your cells to make new proteins.

Because your body is made up of about 75 percent protein, it is vital that you eat the proper amount of protein to keep yourself strong and healthy. Although protein needs are based on overall health and body size, in general, a person needs between 40 and 65 grams of protein daily.

Striking the right balance

The challenge for the person with kidney disease is to have the right balance of protein in the diet. Too much protein can overtax diseased kidneys; not enough protein can lead to malnutrition. In order to determine how your body is processing protein, your health care team will use laboratory tests to monitor the amount of protein and protein waste byproducts in your blood and urine. Your health care team will consider several factors when recommending how much protein you should have, including your body weight, the stage of your disease and your nutrition status.

The first step in creating a healthy diet plan is to talk to your renal dietitian to assess your specific needs and determine what foods will work best for you. Your dietitian may also recommend that you include dietary supplements in your plan. Turn to your dietitian for suggestions on kidney-friendly menus, shopping lists, and restaurant meals.

As time goes by and your needs change, your dietitian can help you adjust your diet to continue to support your health. Some studies have shown that eating a low-protein diet can slow or prevent the progression of kidney disease.

Cutting back on protein

A low-protein diet means you’ll be eating smaller portions of protein foods, probably about 4 to 6 ounces daily. Your renal dietitian will explain exactly how many grams of protein various foods contain so that you can accurately determine how to count your protein.

Proteins that come from animals – dairy products and meat – are easier for your body to use, and you’ll want to be sure that you include enough of them in your diet. However, dairy proteins can be high in phosphorus, so check with your dietitian about the amount of dairy that’s safe to have in your food plan.

Even when you’re avoiding eating big amounts of high-protein foods, you’ll still have a wide variety of foods that you can enjoy, including vegetables, fruit, rice, pasta and breads. Your health care team may suggest that you eat more calorie-dense food in order to avoid losing weight. These include healthy fats such as olive oil and polyunsaturated vegetable oils.

How to eat less protein and still feel satisfied

At first when you decrease your consumption of protein, you may find that your meals are less satisfying. Here are some tips for making the most of your low-protein diet plan:

  • If you’re making a sandwich with less meat than you’re used to, be sure to add lots of veggies such as celery, sprouts, cucumber and lettuce for a more appetizing portion. Using thicker slices of bread will also help your sandwich be more filling.
  • If you’re preparing soup from scratch, cut back on the amount of protein but add pasta or rice to make up the difference. Again, veggies such as celery or green pepper can also add bulk.
  • For dinner, build your meal around vegetables and grains, keeping the portion of meat smaller. A chef’s salad can also be a great dinner entrée – just use smaller portions of meat and hard-boiled egg.
  • Flavor a dish with meat instead of making meat the main event. For instance, combine small bits of chicken or beef with rice or pasta to make tasty skillet dishes or casseroles.
  • Complex carbs, such as pasta, rice and bread, can help provide the calories you need without overdoing your protein consumption.

Although it takes a bit of effort and preplanning to prepare a healthy and enjoyable low-protein meal plan, the benefits include a well-nourished body for more energy now and better health in the long term.