I hope you enjoy reading this blog post. It has been written and vetted by RenalTracker's team of kidney experts and researchers. The same team was awarded the KidneyX Prize organized by the American Society of Nephrology and HHS for pre-dialysis solution in Washington DC in 2019.   

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This New Year, build the right kidney-friendly eating habits that help make your body healthier and optimize your kidney function for the long term.

1. Eat a healthy breakfast.

Kidney-friendly eating habits; eating a healthy breakfast

It’s true what they say about breakfast -- it’s the most important meal of the day. It’s the one meal that sets your energy levels and metabolism right as you start your day. 

Your blood sugar level is at its lowest in the morning, following hours without food. Eating breakfast helps replenish it so your brain and muscles can have fuel to perform tasks during the first few hours of the day. 

Besides filling up your energy tank, a study titled Breakfast in Human Nutrition: The International Breakfast Research Initiative suggests that eating a healthy breakfast provides a number of benefits, including:

  • Improved concentration 
  • Reduced tendency to overeat later in the day
  • Better weight management
  • Improved memory, attention span, and creativity

No time to cook in the morning? A quick breakfast of oats, whole grain cereal, fresh fruits and nuts, fruit or veggie smoothie, or scrambled eggs should provide you the energy and nutrient boost you need. 

You can also prepare your meal the night prior. This plain overnight oats only takes 5 minutes to make.

If you really have to skip breakfast, make up for the nutrients and minerals you missed with your lunch and dinner. Keep in mind though that skipping breakfast isn’t an excuse to overindulge in your next meals. Always be more discerning of the foods that you eat for breakfast and your succeeding meals.

2. Try more plant-based recipes.

Have you dipped a finger in plant-based dieting in the previous year but you felt like you could have explored more? Or that you slipped back to your old eating patterns several times?

Don’t worry. The new year holds plenty of opportunities for you to start afresh and dive deeper into more plant-based recipes to include in your diet. Here are some reminders when introducing plant-based dishes to your diet:

  • Start small. Begin with dishes that you love (just make sure these meals are approved by your dietitian) and rotate them throughout the week.

    Give yourself at least two weeks to adjust and to allow your tastebuds to get used to the taste of plant-based foods.
  • Reduce your consumption of meat and processed food. Adjust the proportion of plant foods and animal foods on your plate. This way, you can give your mind and body the time to get accustomed to the new diet.

    When cooking your favorite meals, swap animal-sourced ingredients with plant-based substitutes (e.g. tofu/mushroom for meat, or quinoa/cauliflower for ground meat).
  • Try to eat at least one plant-based meal per day. Start with breakfast. Then work your way up to your lunch, snacks, and dinner.
  • Watch your protein intake. Every person with kidney disease has unique recommended daily protein intake. KDIGO recommends non-dialysis CKD patients (stages 1-4 CKD) to limit their protein intake to 0.6-0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.

    Talk to your dietitian to know your exact protein limit. If you’re on a low-protein diet, ask your dietitian for low-protein recipes to add to your weekly meal plans. You can also seek advice on how to smoothly switch to a plant-based diet.

3. Identify and address your food issues.

Some people have particular food issues that can get in the way of them getting the right nutrition or successfully starting with a prescribed diet.

Shira Lenchewski, a registered dietitian and author of the new book The Food Therapist, points out that there are five dysfunctional habits that people commonly have around food. These food habits are:

  • Being a “pleaser” - Giving in to other people’s food choices
  • Having trust issues - Having difficulty restraining oneself from eating
  • Craving control - You have irresistible food cravings and you beat yourself up each time you cave in to them
  • Fearing the mundane - Having a misconception that eating healthy would be boring
  • Having a hot-and-cold pattern - You quickly go from ‘all in’ to ‘all out’ in your prescribed diet

Do you experience any or all of these issues? It’s about time to work up the courage to face them this year. The first step is awareness. By acknowledging your food habits, you can determine their root causes and come up with strategies to address them. 

If you’re a pleaser, the best way to tackle it is to practice assertiveness. For instance, if you get invited to a dinner party, tell the host in advance that you’re following a plant-based kidney disease diet. 

If you personally know the host, perhaps they can adjust their menu to cater to your request. Just inform them ahead of time.

Or if you have a fear of the mundane, you may want to get a plant-based diet cookbook that gives you different recipe options you can explore, as well as diverse plant-based substitutions to staple ingredients.

4. Bid adieu to salt, say hello to herbs and spices.

Our bodies need sodium to regulate fluids, transmit nerve impulses, and to enable muscle functions. But too much sodium can be harmful to the body, especially in people with CKD whose kidneys have reduced capacity to filter out wastes in the blood.

Sodium buildup can cause fluid retention, swelling of the hands and feet (edema), increased blood pressure, and shortness of breath. Reducing your salt or sodium intake will help keep these health issues at bay.

Or if you can, completely remove salt, condiments, and seasonings from your kitchen and table. Examples of these include:

  • Soy sauce
  • Garlic salt
  • Fish sauce
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Oyster sauce
  • Mustard sauce
  • Ketchup
  • Worcestershire sauce

Use herbs and spices in place of these high-sodium condiments and seasonings. Fresh herbs and spices not only add flavor to your dishes without jacking up your sodium levels. They’re also excellent sources of antioxidants, beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, lutein, and lycopene which help lower the risk of cancer and heart disease.

Below are common herbs and spices and where to use them:

  • Bay leaf - Vegetables
  • Basil - Vegetables
  • Dill - Cabbage, carrots, green beans, peas, and in dips
  • Ginger - Cauliflower, green beans, and eggplant
  • Rosemary - Cauliflower, peas, and eggplant
  • Lemon juice - Carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower
  • Tarragon - Asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower, and beets

Check in with your doctor and renal dietitian before using any of these herbs and spices. You’ll want to stick with your daily nutrient limits to avoid overworking your kidneys.

5. Make slow, steady, and smart eating changes.

Many people are hyped to set lofty goals when it comes to making lifestyle changes at the beginning of the year. 

However, only very few people actually commit to seeing these changes through the year, with the majority of them having forgotten or given up on their goals by February!

Whether it’s building a new eating habit or unlearning an old one, the key is to make slow yet consistent steps toward achieving your goals.

Here are some tips on how to make small yet lasting changes in your diet:

  • Choose one problem. Do an audit on your diet and eating habits. Which specific area do you struggle with the most? Is it controlling your fluid intake, reducing your sugar consumption, or managing your cravings?
  • Take your main goal and break it into smaller, more specific goals. Come up with a series of steps that will help you achieve your bigger goal.

    For example, if you want to be diligent in meeting your daily fluid requirement, your smaller steps should be to monitor how much you’re drinking per day and to gradually increase the number of glasses you drink.

    A slow and steady increase will make it easier to meet your goal, instead of abruptly drinking huge gulps of fluids in one go.
  • Keep going! It’s normal to slip every now and then. Be patient with yourself. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Try again the next day and go back to your smaller goals.