When you have chronic kidney disease, a lower protein diet with plenty of plant-based proteins can help preserve kidney function.

If you live with chronic kidney disease (CKD), you may need to make some changes to your diet to support your kidneys.

Dietary changes can help slow the progression of CKD. Kidney disease has multiple stages that are defined by how well your kidneys work.

One way to protect your kidneys is by eating less protein. Your kidneys have many jobs, including filtering your blood. When you digest proteins, some waste products end up in your blood.

Typically, your kidneys filter out all those waste products. But when you have CKD, your kidneys don’t filter as well, and they have a harder time keeping up. If you’re eating more protein than your kidneys can handle, those waste products can build up in your blood.

Here’s more about protein and CKD, how much protein to eat, and the best protein sources.

Protein is a nutrient found in many foods, including

  • meats
  • poultry
  • fish
  • seafood
  • beans
  • nuts and seeds
  • dairy products
  • eggs

Your body uses protein for energy. You also need protein to build and repair muscles throughout your body and to make hormones.

Even when your kidneys can no longer filter waste products of protein, you need to eat enough protein to meet your body’s needs.

Many people with CKD are trying to juggle multiple dietary needs, which can make eating feel very complicated. There’s no one kidney disease diet for everyone. The best way for you to eat will depend on your kidney function and your overall health.

If you’re not on dialysis, eating less protein can help protect your kidneys and slow down CKD progression. Eating too much protein can put extra stress on your kidneys.

The amount of protein you need is based on your body weight. A low protein diet is generally defined as 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) per day. Eating that amount provides enough protein to meet your body’s needs but not more than your kidneys can handle.

There is an ongoing debate about exactly what the target should be. Some studies have suggested that a low protein diet should include 0.55 to 0.6 g/kg per day.

While this amount may be easier on your kidneys, it may feel restrictive and make it harder for you to meet your overall nutrient needs. This may increase the risk of malnutrition.

Your healthcare team can discuss the best target for you. It’s crucial that you feel well supported by your healthcare team.

If you can, work with a registered dietitian who specializes in kidney health. They can help you feel more confident in your food choices.

If you’re on dialysis, you no longer depend on your kidneys to filter out waste products in your blood, so your protein needs increase.

During dialysis, some protein gets lost, and you need to eat more to make up for that. You also have higher protein needs because your body uses more energy when you’re on dialysis.

The recommendation for protein intake is 1.2 to 1.3 g/kg per day. Protein intake above or below this target range is associated with worse outcomes for people on dialysis.

The amount of protein you need every day is given as a range. Your healthcare team may consider many factors when determining how much protein you need, including:

  • your stage of kidney disease
  • your body weight
  • whether you’re on dialysis
  • your age
  • any other health conditions you have
  • any other dietary restrictions or needs you have

A dietitian who specializes in kidney health can help you with this. It can feel like a lot to learn, and it’s OK if you need a lot of support along the way.

In addition to the overall amount of protein, the type of protein you eat matters. You can get protein from both animal and plant sources.

Animal sources of protein include:

  • beef, pork, and other meats
  • chicken and turkey
  • fish and seafood
  • dairy products
  • eggs

Plant sources of protein include:

  • beans, lentils, and soy products
  • nuts and seeds
  • some vegetables and grains

Growing research suggests that getting more protein from plant sources may slow the progression of CKD. This eating pattern can also help manage conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure and protect your kidneys. Some research suggests that at least 50% of your protein intake should come from plant foods.

One barrier to eating more plant foods is the issue of potassium. Many people with CKD have high potassium levels. Healthcare professionals often advise people with CKD to eat less potassium, which is found in many fruits, vegetables, and grains.

There’s some debate about how potassium from food affects your potassium levels. For example, a 2023 research review suggests that eating more potassium doesn’t always cause high potassium levels in your blood.

Additionally, a diet high in fruits and vegetables can support heart health in people with CKD and help manage diabetes and high blood pressure.

A low protein, plant-based diet can also help if you’ve been told to eat less phosphorus. Many protein sources also contain phosphorus.

Eating less protein can help lower your phosphorus intake. Another benefit of eating more plant foods is that phosphorus from plant sources doesn’t affect your blood levels as much as the phosphorus in animal foods.

Protein is an important nutrient for energy and for maintaining muscles throughout your body.

When you live with CKD, eating too much protein can be hard on your kidneys. A lower protein diet is often recommended.

Research suggests that getting more protein from plant foods than from animal foods is better for your health. If possible, consult a dietitian who specializes in kidney health to learn how much protein you should be getting each day.

A diet for CKD can feel complex, and you deserve to get the support you need.