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Treating Kidney Failure Through Diet

Not only do plant-based diets appear to prevent kidney function decline, they may also be used to treat kidney failure. Even at the same protein loads, the body is able to better handle phosphorus excretion from plant-based diets, reducing the risk of metastatic calcification.

July 16, 2012 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited


Images thanks to Royonx via Wikimedia Commons, Euthman, and Cihangir Tetik, MD.


One of the important functions of our kidneys is to filter out excess phosphorus from our bloodstream, and so when our kidney function declines, phosphorus can build up in our bodies and cause something called metastatic calcification, where your heart valves and muscles and other parts of your body can buildup calcium deposits and eventually result in skin necrosis, gangrene amputations, all sorts of bad stuff.
So, if a person has diminished kidney function their doctor will likely put them on a low phosphate diet, which is tough, because basically everything with protein has phosphorus. So both plant foods and animal foods have phosphorus. But when omnivores have been compared to those eating vegan, “Vegans had significantly less protein leaking out into their urine," a sign of intact kidney function. So while they concluded that “These results can confirm the usefulness of vegetarianism here and support the use of a vegan diet for the patients with kidney failure.” maybe it was just because the omnivores were getting “a higher protein load,” and we know that lower protein diets appear to delay the progression of kidney failure. So did the plant based diet help because they were eating less protein or because the body somehow is able to handle plant protein better than animal protein?
To do that you’d have to split people into two groups, half on a vegetarian diet, half not, with the critical caveat to make sure both groups eat the exact same amount of protein and the exact same amount of phosophorus. And that’s what researchers did.
Published recently in the journal of the American Society of Nephrology, they took vegetarians and put them on a meat diet, and then took meat-eaters and put them on a vegetarian diet. Even though keeping phosphorus and protein intake were kept the same in both diet groups, here’s the level of phosophorus stuck in the bloodstream of those on the meat diet, compared to those on the veg diet. So something about plant foods enables our bodies to better handle their phosphorus content. Same amount of phosphorus, but plant phosphorus appeasr easier to cleanse away.
 Positive results have been seen with even semi-vegetarian diets, but the reason the new study “observed more dramatic differences after only 1 week, was perhaps because of the pure vegetarian diets used in our study. Taken together, vegetarian-based diets may be beneficial for the control of phosphorus balance in patients with chronic kidney disease.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Serena

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Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

This is the second video of a two-part series about the latest discoveries on kidney function and food. See also Preventing Kidney Failure Through Diet. This is another reason why Plant Protein is Preferable and food is, after all, a package deal. In addition, plant based diets can help prevent and treat diabetes, prevent and treat COPD, prevent and treat arthritis, prevent and treat cancer, prevent and treat heart disease, and prevent and treat obesity. Why don't more providers in the medical community embrace plant-based diets? See my video The Tomato Effect and the hundreds of other videos on more than a thousand subjects.

For more context, check out my associated blog post, Preventing and Treating Kidney Failure With Diet.

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    This is the second video of a two-part series about the latest discoveries on kidney function and food. See also Preventing Kidney Failure Through Diet. This is another reason why Plant Protein is Preferable and food is, after all, a package deal. In addition, plant based diets can help prevent and treat diabetes, prevent and treat COPD, prevent and treat arthritis, prevent and treat cancer, prevent and treat heart disease, and prevent and treat obesity. Why don’t more providers in the medical community embrace plant-based diets? See my video The Tomato Effect and the hundreds of other videos on more than a thousand subjects.

    • SJ M.D.

      This is really interesting – same amount of phosphor and protein, but two different sources – animal vs plants, and the patients do better on the plant based protein and phosphor. The winner is…….plants!

    • HemoDynamic, M.D.

      How many times have we seen this in our office. Pt comes in with BUN 25, Cr 1.1, 2 weeks on a strict plant based diet and viola! BUN 7, Cr 0.7.

      Works everytime!   It almost looks like magic, until, of course, we understand the physiology. 

      • Wickedchicken

        Wow. I am
        Just wondering are you using plant based diets in a medical practice or hospital setting? It is so hard to go against guidelines or do anything outside the box.

        • HemoDynamic, M.D.

          I’m Private Practice and you’re correct traditional medicine doesn’t like it because you have to take a bit more time with the patients (which means less money) and they have never been taught nutrition and it’s benefits and don’t want to take the time to educate themselves, but the patients love it! 

          And isn’t that what all docs wanted to do when they went into medicine (Altruistic statement and I’m sure not important to some physicians) help people get better? And do no harm!

          Hospitals should use it too and patients would get much better faster, but Hospitals are afraid of teaching people to get better because, think about it, they only make money when you are sick! Not when you are well or dead.

          It’s a tough call at first, but once one starts learning about the overwhelming evidence in medicine supporting a plant based diet first, and then medicines second for treatment of chronic disease it becomes a no-brainer!

          I am a physician and have the benefit of seeing my patients get better daily in my practice using a plant based diet.  Few have this luxury but when they start seeing benefits they eventually start making better choices (usually).  I even have one practice partner that has seen so many of my patients get better on a plant based diet that he has now become Vegan!  He wasn’t always that way and at first made fun of me and my teachings.  Proof was in the plants!

          Break the chain, learn as much as you can about plant based lifestyles and start to teach it in your practice.  Then sit back and watch the transformations in your patients.

          Give them (your patients) the Vegetarian Starter Pack. 

          Have them visit everyday and learn about the research–anybody can spend 2-3 minutes a day watching something about Nutrition from Dr. Greger.

          Have them watch Forks over Knives Documentary (The history of the book The China Study). 

          Give them John McDougalls, MD’s website  Educate, educate, educate.

          Plants work 100% of the time.  Some faster than others but it is truly amazing.

      • KLV RN/CDE

        Plant-based diets ARE powerful for improving renal function! But what kind of recommendations do you give to pts who come in with labs indicating impaired renal function AND  hyperkalemia (or a hx of hyperkalemia)? 

        • HemoDynamic, M.D.

          That would have to be evaluated on a patient by patient basis because many things can cause hyperkalemia. 

          But here is a link to the most famous of Kidney Disease reversal Doctors and that is Walter Kempner, MD who coined the term Rice Diet–this is what put Duke University on the map for great Universities.

          If it is a more severe case they could go to True North.  This is where Dr. T. Colin Campbell went when he was toxified with Dioxin and was able to rid himself of this carcinogen and restore his health.

          But for most changing to a vegan diet suffices for Kidney disease stage 2 or 3.

    • LynnCS

      I recently started going to a local acupuncturist. She is a wonderful youngish woman, well versed in chinese medicine and is always trying to get me to tell her how much protein I get. I have told her that I am raw vegan and rely on veg sources and try to shoot for abt 35 g a day. She is noticeably upset when I tell her that. I am so surprised that she is snacking on meat and cheese at her desk when she prescribes herbs for so many body issues. I saw her as an alternative medical provider until she had this conversation with me a couple times. I do feel good after a treatment, but am not so sure that it is for me in the long run. I need to be among like minded people, especially care givers.

  • Randy

    Another exciting research article/concept to reinforce why presently and anthropologically our bodies are physiologically better able to function from plant vs animal sustenance. 

    Public opinion and medical knowledge/support of this topic and many similar research results would be much more accepted…………….. if it were not for the immensely large and powerful meat and dairy industry.

    • SJ M.D.

      The problem is that the knowledge has been around for many years, but still people die prematurely simply from eating the wrong food. 

      Mikkel Hindhede M.D. (danish doctor) conducted experiments with food in 1896-1904 (SIC!) showing that you only need 25-50% of the protein recommended. 100 years ago !

      He conducted experiments with people living 9-18 months on only potatoes and a little fat. They thrived, maintained healthy, worked without problems and no problems with physical activity (running).

      He wrote: Even if you eat a simple diet of bread, potatoes, kale etc you will get enough protein. 100 years ago !

      He wrote: The quality of protein from bread equals protein from meat. 100 years ago !

      • Thea

         SJ M.D.:  wow!  That is just so fascinating.  I really appreciate you taking the time to post this information.  I’ve seen some of your other posts and also liked those. 

        Just wanted to let you know that your posts are definitely appreciated. 


        • SJ M.D.

          Thea – thanks. I think “the plant strong/vegan message” is important to save us from many diseases and ultimately to save the planet.

      • HemoDynamic, M.D.

        Dr. J,
        You may already know this but the grand master of reversing Kidney disease is Walter Kempner, M.D. and his rice diet.  It is what brought Duke university critical acclaim. Below are two links to read his story and to read his work.

        Plants, plants, plants, plants!  I wish I could patent plants!  Then I would truly be rollin’ in the Green ;-}

        • SJ M.D.

          Dr D,
          Thanks for the links.

          BTW: This time you didnt answer my reply! ;-)

          Video: Treating G. W. with green tea, reply 23

        • Jola

          I know you are speaking in jest,but not everything that is good for us needs to be  tainted with monetary covetousness. While I love the idea of plants and plant based eating and all the good that it does the human body and the planet, I think patenting plants is a bad idea (think Mansanto/GMOs and the like).  Just my “unjesty” thoughts.  

  • Veguyan

    Interesting. I don’t know how it fits in but to dissolve kidney stones I was given a protocol that includes not only apple juice and other herbs but liquid phosphorus as well.

  • Connie

    Thanks so much for sharing this! My mom began dialysis in April. My husband and I are vegan, so it has been a challenge cooking for her. I’ve been pushing the meat because that’s what the dialysis nutritionist told me had to be done. I will be giving this info to her!

  • Claudia

    I have a friend in kidney failure. She says that she can’t do my diet (I’m a McDougaller) because she has exceptionally high potassium levels.  Is she right?

    • M.Harris, RD, LD

       Many fruits, veggies, legumes and dairy products are high in potassium, which makes a potassium restricted diet difficult for anyone, herbivores and omnivores alike!  I would ask your friend to check with her nephrologist (kidney doctor) on how much potassium he or she can have per day (in milligrams), and if it were me, I would get a second opinion.  Also, if your friend is on kidney dialysis, often times adjustments can be made in the dialysis regimen to allow for a bit higher daily allowance of potassium.   If your friend still has some remaining kidney function, he or she has to weigh the taxing effects of animal proteins on the remaining kidney function versus far more benign plant proteins.  Though there is no question that severely potassium-restricted diets are challenging for anyone, a vegan lifestyle can still be followed, and the health benefits of this lifestyle are no less important for those with kidney disease.  Lastly, have your friend work with a registered dietitian to get help with planning the diet.

  • Mp Bailey

    After teaching a class on nutriton at my church my Pastor went vegan for 6 months in an attempt to reverse his polycystic kidney disease.  After the six months he had lost weight and his cholesterol went down by 50 points but his blood test showed that his kidney’s had actually gotten worse.  Is there any research on polycystic kidney disease and diet?

    • Toxins

      Dr. Mcdougall disscusses this form of kidney disease here.

      If you do not know who Dr. McDougall is, he is a very well known plant based doctor who like Dr. Greger is leading the way in plant based nutrition.

    • Mp Bailey

      Thank you so much for your help.  I will print it out and give it to him.   Of course I know of Dr. McDougall.  He is my hero.   I don’t know why I didn’t look there.  I guess I was just seeing if there was any new research on the subject.  Thank you again for your help! 

  • Rckamen2

    Another wonderful offering! How much suffering and how many amputations have I seen in my many years of hospital nursing…and now we have real eye opening help!
    Thanks again, more power to you and all the heroes that are practicing this medicine! The daily videos are my daily inspiration and I share them with everyone I can!

  • Chris

    Hi Dr. Greger. My husband is a nephrologist. We eat a mostly plant strong diet. For years, he has encouraged his patients to lose weight, thinking that lower BMI is a very big determiner in health and progression of diseases. The mainstream medical community recommends white bread, eggs and beef as good choices for people with kidney disease. They are supposed to avoid whole grains, beans and most veggies……

    I am interested in putting together a resource guide for his patients and am wondering if there is more info about being plant strong while on dialysis. The general info and recommended recipes on the internet are appalling.

    Thoughts? Suggestions?

    Thanks! :)

  • shannon

    Hi, I have a question for all of you out there – where do you find CKD vegan/vegetarian recipes? My husband was recently diagnosed with CKD, and I am struggling to find CKD recipes that are good for our whole family. The ‘traditional’ CKD diet looks like a bunch of crap to me, and we don’t eat meat. There is a lot of talk about the value of vegetarian diets to someone with CKD, and yet there really aren’t many recipes. Please help.