kidneysOur kidneys are fist-size organs which perform numerous functions. Some may even surprise you. You may know kidneys are vital for purifying blood; did you know that healthy kidneys filter an average of four ounces of blood every minute?

But in addition to filtering out toxins, kidneys maintain the proper pH of our blood, regulate blood pressure, are major players in blood cell production, and activate vitamin D for bone health. Maintaining the health of our kidneys is often an overlooked but worthwhile outcome of healthy eating and diabetes management.

Lifestyle choices can lead to, or help prevent, kidney disease. Poorly controlled blood glucose levels increase the workload of kidneys which can contribute to scarring and reduced efficiency. High blood pressure is the second most common cause of kidney disease as blood vessels in the kidneys become inflamed and scarred. High cholesterol similarly affects organ health. Many people with diabetes recognize that good blood pressure and cholesterol in conjunction with good blood glucose control are goals to prevent long term health complications.

The role of diet in kidney health is often thought of as limiting salt and protein. But maintaining kidney function in healthy individuals or those with only early stages of kidney disease is more about what should be eaten not avoided. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean Diet focus on whole grains, fruit and vegetables with low fat, controlled portions of animal protein and dairy. The anti-inflammatory benefits of these meal plans provide adequate but not excessive essential vitamins, minerals, protein, and calories that positively impact blood pressure, cholesterol, body weight, and organ health.

When kidneys diminish in function, some nutrients can build up in the blood and foods high in added sodium and phosphorus can be problematic. Here are some things to consider with your diet:

  • Sodium is an important electrolyte for heart rhythm. In excess though, it may lead to high blood pressure; a risk factor for  kidney disease. Sodium is 40% of salt, a flavor enhancer, and preservative. Processed foods can have significant sodium content, while foods in their natural state are generally low in sodium. Begin by seasoning food with herbs and other spices. Also read labels for sodium, limit your daily intake of it to 2,400 mg per day, and enlist your doctor's guidance as well.
  • If phosphorus levels are not well controlled, blood vessel calcification can occur (buildup of stone-like crystals in the blood vessels). Added phosphorus can be identified mainly by reading the ingredient list on nutrition labels. You will find  phosphoric acid in dark colas and other phosphorus-containing additives in many processed foods.
  • Both potassium and protein are restricted in later stages of kidney disease. Potassium performs many important functions in the body. It is restricted when test results indicate blood levels are elevated. Be cautious of salt substitutes as they often replace sodium with potassium. Many fruits and vegetables, especially potatoes, contain potassium but also important antioxidants. Ask your doctor if you need to limit your intake of potassium.
  • Protein is often lost through the kidneys if diabetes is poorly controlled and in the early stages of kidney disease. Adequate protein intake is important. But how much  protein? Roughly one gram of protein per kilogram of ideal body weight. In most cases this is 55 to 80 grams per day. One egg, one cup of milk, 6 oz yogurt, ½ cup of beans or an ounce of meat has 6 to 8 grams of protein each.
  • Herbal supplements and some over the counter medications can negatively impact kidneys. Always check with your doctor before taking such products.

One last thing that can help is exercise; it is considered "free medicine" by health professionals. In addition to helping manage weight, exercise helps strengthens bones, manage stress, blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure--all benefits to kidney health.

Preventing kidney disease happens with each good lifestyle choice. Monitoring the health of your kidneys should take place through tests ordered at least annually by your doctor. you can also contact a diabetes educator or dietitian near you for more information.