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Maintaining healthy kidneys is often overlooked in the fight against chronic diseases. 

Yet, chronic kidney disease (CKD) currently affects approximately one in ten adults worldwide and its burden is increasing. By 2040, it is projected to become the fifth most common cause of years of life lost globally.

March 12 is World Kidney Day and this year this year’s theme is preventive interventions to avert the onset and progression of kidney disease.

 As a nephrologist, I would argue there is nothing more powerful than optimal plant-based nutrition to help achieve these goals.

World Kidney Day 2020 will look at preventive interventions to avert the onset and progression of kidney disease (Photo: World Kidney Day)

Averting the onset of CKD

The two most common causes of CKD are diabetes and high blood pressure (hypertension), which are together responsible for up to two-thirds of cases. 

In fact, up to 30 percent of people with diabetes will develop CKD within 20 years of their diagnosis.

Dietary change

Fortunately, there is now established evidence that dietary change is a powerful strategy to treat both diabetes and hypertension, as it addresses their root cause: the highly processed, energy dense, nutrient-poor standard Western diet

Research shows that shifting to a more whole food plant-based diet can not only prevent but even reverse these conditions. 

However, it doesn’t stop there. Plant-strong diets seem to be protective against the development of CKD and the initiation of dialysis even with statistical adjustment for people with diabetes, obesity and hypertension.

Slowing CKD progression

Diet is critical in the management of all CKD, even if the disease is caused by conditions such as auto-immune diseases, polycystic kidneys or malformations from birth. 

In all cases, a standard Western diet contributes significantly to chronic kidney damage and therefore plays a major role in the progressive worsening of kidney function and the development of end-stage kidney failure.

This is good news for anyone with a diagnosis of CKD, as diet change can significantly slow the progression of the disease and enhance both quality and years of life.

A healthy plant-based diet can help in maintaining kidney health (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission) 

Protein

One of the most important dietary factors for kidney health is protein intake, with both observational and controlled trials associating high protein consumption with kidney damage. 

Healthy plant-based diets are naturally lower in protein, whilst remaining sufficient. Not only that, but protein from plants also appears to be better for kidney health than animal-based proteins.

Dietary acid load

Every piece of food we eat is made up of acid and base pre-cursors that affect the acid-base balance in our blood. Animal-derived and refined foods are generally net acid-producing, whilst fruits, vegetables and legumes are net alkali-producing.

Chronic acidosis is not only associated with a loss of bone mass, impaired heart function and increased risk of death, but also contributes to worsening kidney function. It is therefore unsurprising that high dietary acid load (i.e. high consumption of animal foods) has been shown to significantly increase the risk of kidney failure and markers of kidney disease progression

Lastly, as well as slowing kidney function decline, a whole food plant-based diet addresses many complications seen in advanced kidney disease such as cardiovascular disease, high blood levels of phosphate, and buildup of uremic toxins.

The take-home message

Plant-based nutrition is not only an effective tool for primary prevention of kidney disease onset, but it can also play a powerful role slowing disease progression and averting severe complications. 

This World Kidney Day, I encourage everyone to raise awareness of both kidney disease and this underutilized approach to reduce its increasing impact on society. 

For a more detailed article by Dr Ta’eed on plant-based diets for kidney health, visit Doctors For Nutrition.