Low Protein Diets for CKD

Protein is the basic building block for the human body. And is made up of amino acids. Protein plays an important role as it helps build muscles, blood, hair, skin, nails and parts of our organs. Most of the body’s protein is located in our muscles. Something many people are looking into living with kidney disease is a low protein diet for CKD. But let’s look at what protein is and what a low protein diet does.

What Is Protein?

Protein is found in foods like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, beans, nuts and tofu. We also find small amounts of protein in vegetables, cereals and grains.  

Protein plays important roles like:

• Regulates bodily functions

• Helps build muscle and maintain lean body tissue

• Transport nutrients, oxygen and waste throughout the body

• Produces collagen to build connective tissue for the skin, hair and nail

Why Is Protein Important?

When your body uses protein, it produces waste. This waste is removed by the kidneys. Too much protein can make the kidneys work harder, so people with CKD maybe recommended to eat less protein (but not eliminate it). Too little protein can lead to malnutrition and weight loss.

Protein can be broken down into amino acids. There are nine amino acids that are essential to human health and nutrition. A food that has all the essential amino acids an individual needs is called a complete protein. All animal proteins are complete proteins: i.e. milk, eggs, cheese, fish and meat have all 9 amino acids. Proteins from some plant sources like nuts, soybeans (tofu is made from soybeans), and the germ of grains are also complete proteins. 

Some plant foods contain protein, but do not have all the essential amino acids the human body needs; these are incomplete proteins. Incomplete proteins lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids so they are not able to support growth or provide normal maintenance of body tissues as well. For example we get some amino acids from nuts, legumes, beans, grains/cereals, lentils and peas. And then we get different amino acids from rice, wheat and corn. But when grains combine with other foods like beans, together they form complementary proteins.

In the end there are various ways to make protein complete:

1. By consuming animal foods

2. By combining plant and animal foods

3. By combining plant proteins from a variety of cereals and grains

What Is A Low Protein Diet For CKD?

Unhealthy kidneys lose the ability to remove protein waste and it starts to build up in the blood. Dietary protein intake for patients with CKD is based on your stage of kidney disease, nutrition status and body size.

Generally you do not need to make changes to your protein until stage 3 or later. Low protein and very low protein diets end up being almost entirely plant-based (meaning no animal products at all) because of the level of protein that needs to reached. Plant-based proteins have less protein per serving. Check out the charts below for more information.

Animal Proteins

Examples: chicken, turkey, fish or shellfish, pork, beef, lamb.

Most animal based proteins have 7 g protein per 1 ounce. Using your hands is a quick trick to estimate protein sources. The size of a deck of cards is about 2.5 ounces, this is close to the size of your palm and the thickness of your pinky. If yours is larger, use the deck of cards as an example. This means that a 5 oz chicken breast will have 35 g protein. So portion size with animal proteins is important.

Plant-based Proteins

Examples: beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, edamame, quinoa

Nut butter (1 TBSP = 7 g protein)

Chickpeas, lentils, black beans (1/2 cup = 7 g protein)

Tofu (1/2 cup = 10 g protein)

Quinoa (1/2 cup = 4 g protein)

Hummus (1/4 cup = 4 g protein)

Plant-based have an additional benefit to animal proteins because they are lower in saturated fat which is great for our heart health and higher in fibre so they can help keep you full. But, while plant-based proteins are lower in protein, and this can be helpful at later stages of CKD, especially with a low protein diet for CKD. Plant sources of protein are low in one or more of the essential amino acids. A plant-based diet can meet protein needs but it requires careful planning by eating a variety of plant-based foods and foods with complementary amino acids. 

How Much Do I Need?

Remember that it is important to know the right amount of protein for you. The exact amount of protein you need depends on your body size, your nutritional status and your kidney problem and other health conditions. Since too little protein can lead to malnutrition at any stage of kidney disease, speaking with a renal dietitian can help. This. is a big topic in the kidney connection my signature course for CKD.

Are You Looking To Make Nutrition Changes?

If you’re looking to feel empowered and supported with your nutrition needs, working with a dietitian can help you gain confidence and understand your kidney-friendly diet while preserving your kidney function.

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Published by Emily Campbell, RD CDE MScFN

Emily Campbell, RD CDE MScFN is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She specializes in renal nutrition helping those with chronic kidney disease. Emily holds a Master's degree in Foods and Nutrition and is a co-chair of the Southern Ontario Canadian Association of Nephrology Dietitians.

3 thoughts on “Low Protein Diets for CKD

  1. This is a great information on low protein diet for CKD. I’d prefer to eat plant based protein with occasional animal protein, like hard boiled eggs. It’s a struggle to balance everything I eat and maintain kidney function.

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