The RenalTracker Team
August 10, 2020

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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There are several myths associated with a plant-based diet. Many people may feel reluctant to try out a diet that primarily consists of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains because they think it tastes bland, is expensive, or takes a lot of time to prepare. 

Senior couple preparing for a plant-based diet food

In this second part of our plant-based diet blog series, we discuss the common misconceptions surrounding plant-based diets and the truth behind them.

1. Plant-Based eating doesn’t mean going vegan/vegetarian.

This is probably the most common misconception people have about going plant-based. A vegan diet eliminates all kinds of animal products, including meat, poultry, and dairy; while a vegetarian diet consists of eggs and dairy products, but excludes meat and fish. 

However, a plant-based diet is different. It focuses on eating MORE whole foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains) and less processed meat, fast food, packaged food, and sweetened beverages.

There are many types of plant-based diets, each focusing on certain plant food groups. Also, every CKD patient has specific nutrient requirements based on their kidney disease stage, existing medical conditions, and dietary preferences. Renal dietitians play a huge role in designing a meal plan that’s tailored to your health and taste. 

2. You have a variety of diet options with plant-based diets.

Your nephrologists may have advised you to avoid specific foods to minimize the workload of your kidneys. When on a renal-friendly plant-based diet, you will need to limit or avoid the consumption of animal meal. Today, there are plenty of whole plant foods that you can substitute without animal meal products.

Tofu, mushrooms, legumes (e.g. soybeans, lentils and chickpeas), and jackfruits all make a great alternative to meat. There are also ready-made plant-based alternatives like soy milk, cheese and vegan meat that you can consume as they are or added into everyday dishes (e.g. burgers, stews and lasagna). 

Unlike animal meat, these foods are low in fat, protein, and cholesterol, which is ideal for CKD patients who are trying to maintain a healthy body weight. For more alternative options, check out vegetarian cookbooks. They contain tons of plant-based appetizers, entrees, snacks, and dessert ideas. Just make sure to consult with your dietitian to see if the recipe is good for you.

3. Whole plant foods are highly affordable!

Switching to whole foods is not necessarily expensive. Prices of ingredients vary from location to location (especially for fruits and vegetables). But on average, the common ingredients that make up a kidney-friendly plant-based diet are affordable even for people who are on a shoestring budget. 

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition found that vegetarians spend an average $750 less on food every year than those who consume animal products.

To save more, you can buy grains, beans, nuts, and legumes in bulk. On top of that, fruits and vegetables in season are generally cheaper especially when you purchase them from farmers’ markets. The key is to stock up on seasonal plant foods and purchase expensive products sparingly (and in small amounts).

4. You can get enough protein from a plant-based diet.

Many people think that cutting off meat means eliminating essential protein from their diet, and going plant-based might eventually result in protein deficiency.  The truth is plant foods can give you the right amount of protein your body needs. You can even benefit more from a plant-based diet if you are a non-dialysis CKD patient who needs to limit protein intake

Based on the statistics from the National Kidney Foundation, CKD patients who restricted their protein intake to 0.6/kg per day lived longer than those consuming free protein intake. Eating low-protein plant foods makes it easier for you to keep your protein levels at a minimum, preventing protein buildup in your body. The lower the protein level in your urine, the less work it is for your kidneys. It’s also important to eat the appropriate protein sources.

Compared to animal protein, lean plant protein sources are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. This is important in lowering blood pressure levels in CKD patients who have hypertension.

The following are examples of low-protein plant foods for people with kidney disease:

  • Soy Products- These include tofu, soy milk, soy cheese, and tempeh (A type of soy paste)
  • Beans and Legumes - Examples are red beans, kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas, and lentils. 
  • Whole grains- Cereals, rice, bread, pastas and flour made from whole grains (Avoid whole grain products that have added sugar).
  • Nuts and seeds - Choose from almonds, cashews, walnuts, sesame seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds.
  • Healthy Oils- Common types are sesame oil and olive oil (they also have antioxidant properties that help reduce inflammation)
  • Natural Herbs and spices - Cumin, thyme, paprika, cinnamon, and ground chilies.

Important Note: KDIGO, a non-profit organization advocating for evidence-based clinical practice in managing kidney disease, suggests lowering protein intake 0.6 to 0.8g/kg a day. Still, every CKD patient has different protein requirements depending on their age, gender, weight, medical condition and kidney disease stage. Before making any dietary adjustments, make sure to consult with your doctor or dietitian first to know your exact protein needs and where to get them. Too much protein intake can have negative effects on your body. 

5. Kidney-friendly plant-based meals are delicious and easy to prepare. 

Perhaps you associate a renal-friendly plant-based diet with patient food: bland and tasteless. Or maybe you think that you lack the cooking skills and the motivation needed to experiment with your meals. Adjusting to new eating habits and nutrition requirements can also be a huge challenge for many people with kidney disease. 

All these are normal, especially where you are newly diagnosed with CKD. However, with the help from your renal dietitian, you can discover new and exciting ways to make your meals tastier and exciting for your palate. You can also try out new cooking methods to flavour up your meals without compromising their nutritive value. Get your hands on plant-based diet cookbooks. Feel Free to try new recipes (but check in with your doctor first). 

Did you know that there are chefs who specialize in kidney-disease friendly cooking? One of them is chef Duane Sunwold, who is also a former CKD patient himself. Coupled with his culinary expertise and his determination to improve his condition through plant-based dieting, chef Duane has developed effective techniques to turn ordinary disehs into delectable kidney-friendly meals. 

Chef Duane shares a few of his secrets to maintaining his diet as easy on his kidneys as possible: 

  • Use non-sodium/saltless seasonings.
  • To release their flavor, roast vegetables before adding them to soups and sauces.
  • Use home-made roasted vegetable stock to enhance the flavor of any dish.
  • Avoid processed seasonings. Replace onion salt, garlic salt, and celery salt wtih onion powder, garlic powder, and celery seeds. 
  • Minimize fat by using vegetable stock in lieu of salad oils for your salad dressings. 
  • Choose fresh fruit for snack and dessert. 

6. You can still enjoy dining at restaurants and parties!

True, dining out can be a challenge when you're advised to cut back on fast food. But challenging does not mean impossible. Many restaurants serve meatless choices including side dishes, soups, pastas and salads. 

It would save you the hassle of combing through these restaurants when on the road by doing your research first. Create a list of restaurants that have plant-based options on their menu. Call them if you have further questions about their dishes. 

You don't even have to decline dinner or party invitations. If you know the host well, inform them about your condition and dietary preferences. 

We hope this article cleared out any misconceptions you may have and encouraged you to try out a plant-based diet. As what we've tackled in our first article on plant-based diet and its impact on kidney disease. Shifting to a diet of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can have a positive effect on people with CKD. This diet helps prevent waste buildup in your body, plus it helps reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and 

Please remember that the information state here does not replace the expert advice of your renal healthcare team. Consult with them to see if a plant-based diet sustainable for your present kidney function. 

Curious how a plant-based diet can preserve the kidney function of a person who used to struggle with CKD for years? In the third part of our plant-based diet series, our resident CKD chef Duane Sunwold shares his success story and how he reversed the effects of kidney disease by following a plant-based diet. Stay tuned!  


Myths and Misconceptions About Plant-Based Diets 

Kidney Disease Friendly Cooking 

Exploring Opinions on Plant-Based Eating 

Dietary Protein Intake and Chronic Kidney Disease 

Clinical Practice Guideline For Nutrition In Chronic Kidney Disease: 2019 Update 

How To Get Enough Protein On A Plant-Based Diet