If you or a loved one must follow a renal (kidney) diet, you probably know meals and snacks require careful planning. You might also worry that a renal diet is daunting and leaves you with few options. But these food lists and suggestions will help you prepare healthy, delicious, kidney-friendly foods.
What Is a Renal Diet?
A renal diet supports healthy kidney function for those with kidney disease. Your kidneys are bean-shaped organs below your ribcage, on either side of your spine. They perform essential functions like:
- Filtering your blood.
- Removing waste through your urine.
- Maintaining fluid balance in your body.
With kidney disease, your kidneys can’t filter your blood the way they usually would. That allows too much sodium, potassium, phosphorus, and protein byproducts to build up in your blood. That can worsen your kidney damage and cause your body to hold on to too much fluid.
A renal diet is low in protein, sodium, potassium, and phosphorus. It protects your kidneys so they don’t have to work so hard. It also helps manage fluid in your body so you don’t hold on to too much fluid.
The specific amounts of protein, sodium, potassium, and phosphorus you can eat depend on the extent of your kidney disease. If you have advanced kidney disease, your doctor will tell you what and how much to limit.
Never Miss a Beat!
Subscribe to Our HealthBeat Newsletter!
Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!
What to Eat on a Renal Diet
With a renal diet, it’s best to eat fresh, whole foods rather than packaged, frozen, or canned foods. Whole foods are naturally lower in sodium and more nutritious, so they’re healthier for your kidneys — and the rest of your body. With some planning, it’s easy to prepare meals with a variety of lean protein foods and low potassium fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Protein is essential for healthy kidneys, but you shouldn’t go overboard if your kidneys are unable to remove excess waste. It’s usually OK to eat a small serving of protein at each meal. A dietitian can tell you if you should eat more or less.
Some good protein options include:
- Skinless chicken or turkey.
- Fish or seafood.
- Lean beef like sirloin or tenderloin.
- Tofu and beans, like kidney beans or lentils. Note that these are higher in potassium and phosphorus, so you may need to limit the portion size.
Fruit and vegetable choices
Many fruits and vegetables are high in potassium, and you might have to avoid them or eat small portions. It’s best to work with a renal dietitian, who can tell you which and how much to eat. Some tasty lower potassium fruits and vegetable options include:
- Green beans
- Sweet peppers
Grain and starch choices
Whole grains contribute fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but many are high in potassium. You may need to limit your portion sizes and how often you eat whole grains. Some healthy, lower potassium options include:
- Wild rice
- Unsalted popcorn
White bread, pasta, or rice are lower in potassium than their whole-grain counterparts. Ask your dietitian if these are better options for you.
Foods to Avoid on a Renal Diet
Most snack foods and packaged or canned convenience foods are very high in sodium. The same is true with processed or seasoned meats and pickled vegetables. Read the nutrition facts label and choose foods with less than 240 mg of sodium per serving.
You should avoid or limit these high sodium foods:
- Chips, crackers, pretzels, and salted popcorn.
- Canned soups or stews.
- Pickles, olives, and pickled vegetables or relishes.
- Deli meats and cheeses (unless they say “low sodium”), hot dogs, sausages, and bacon.
- Packaged meals like frozen dinners or mac and cheese.
- Packaged, seasoned rice or noodles.
- Frozen, seasoned meats or fish like chicken strips or fish sticks.
Also, limit these high potassium foods:
- Dried fruits.
- Potatoes (white and sweet).
- Tomatoes (and tomato sauce or juice).
- Winter squash.
- Nuts and nut butters.
- Seeds like sunflower or pumpkin seeds.
- Granola and bran cereals.
- Salt substitutes that contain potassium.
Finally, you may need to limit portions of these high-phosphorus foods on a renal diet:
- Dairy foods like milk, yogurt, cheese, or ice cream.
- Dried beans like kidney, black, or pinto beans.
- Dark soft drinks like colas or root beers.
Oat milk and milk substitutes have become increasingly popular. Depending on the brand, oat milk can have up to 20% phosphorous.
A dietitian can teach you how to count the milligrams of sodium, potassium, and phosphorus in your diet. You may have small or occasional servings of these foods depending on your kidneys’ health.
Renal Diet Cooking Tips
It’s crucial to read food and ingredient labels and use renal diet grocery lists to identify any foods you should avoid. You might want to invest in kidney-friendly cookbooks for healthy meal and snack inspiration. Ask your dietitian for resources and recommendations.
When cooking, try these tips to reduce sodium and potassium in your foods:
- Don’t add salt or potassium chloride salt substitute when cooking or seasoning food. Instead, flavor your foods with fresh or dried herbs or salt-free herb blends. Onions, garlic, mustard, flavored vinegar, and citrus zest are also great flavor enhancers.
- When choosing canned foods like beans, vegetables, or tuna, choose low sodium or no added salt versions. Drain and rinse them in a colander to reduce salt even more.
- To reduce potassium in foods like potatoes or winter squash, cut and soak them in a large amount of water. When you’re ready to cook, drain the water and replace it with fresh water before boiling.
- Choose canned fruits packed in water instead of fresh fruit. Make sure you drain off the water before eating the fruit.
Shopping and cooking for a renal diet take a bit of practice. But once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature. With time and support, you’ll be able to cook healthy and delicious meals like a pro.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.