04/23/2013 08:23 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2013

You Are What You Eat


As the old saying goes, "you are what you eat," and there are now even more reasons to choose your foods wisely. According to a new study, an unhealthy diet -- independent of calories consumed -- may increase your risk for developing kidney disease.

In this study of over 2,300 people between the ages of 28 and 40, an unhealthy diet or "poor diet quality" was determined by using the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet as a model. As I've touted in previous posts, the DASH diet is kidney-friendly and has even been named the best diet for overall healthy eating. According to this new research, eating right by following a DASH-style diet may also help to prevent kidney disease.

Unhealthy diets were high in red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium, while low in fruit, legumes, nuts, whole grains and low-fat dairy. Those who developed kidney disease consumed more soft drinks, red meat and fast food than those who did not develop kidney disease. They were also more likely to be African-American, living with diabetes or high blood pressure, or to have a family history of kidney disease.

The study also looked at other unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking and obesity, both of which contributed to the development of kidney disease. Only 1 percent of people without any unhealthy lifestyle-related factors developed signs of kidney disease, while an alarming 13 percent of study participants with three unhealthy lifestyle factors developed protein in their urine, an early indicator of kidney damage. Obese people were twice as likely to develop kidney disease.

As a physician, I always encourage patients to make lifestyle changes to improve their health because these modifications are within their control. We aren't able to change our genetic makeup, but we should choose what we eat more carefully because the right foods may be able to prevent kidney disease.

Here are seven DASH-diet-inspired healthy eating tips from the National Kidney Foundation to get you started:

  1. Reduce red and processed meats: Aside from being high in saturated fat and cholesterol, recent studies linking red meat with heart disease offer even more reasons to scale back on red meat or slash it from your diet all together. Processed meats are usually high in sodium, a key offender in "a-salting" the kidneys.
  2. Lighten up with legumes: These are a great meat alternative. Lentils, beans, chickpeas, and soybeans are examples of legumes that are low in fat, but high in protein and fiber. They'll fill you up without weighing you down.
  3. Eat the rainbow: The pot of gold at the end is better health. Fruits and vegetables come in a variety of different colors. To ensure that you're consuming a wide range of nutrients, try to mix things up by incorporating new colors into your diet. Avoid processed foods colored with dyes, and choose whole foods to incorporate "colors" -- and in turn, lots of antioxidant-filled vitamins and minerals -- into your diet.
  4. Go nuts! (in moderation): Unsalted almonds, peanuts and walnuts are a good source of magnesium, fiber and protein. Nuts also contain unsaturated fats, which are good-for-you fats, but since they can be high in calories, it's important to enjoy these in moderation.
  5. Refine your grain selection -- by passing over the refined varieties. Sift out the healthy whole grains and expand your comfort zone by trying new whole grains. If you regularly eat whole grains, mix things up by incorporating them into your diet in new ways. For example, add cinnamon and dried cherries to make your quinoa a breakfast dish. Bulgur wheat, oats, barley, whole-grain rice, and whole-wheat pasta are just a few whole grains that you can use to create savory and sweet dishes alike. Be creative!
  6. Cut the cheese: Middle-school jokes aside, try to cut back on the fat percentage in the dairy products you consume. Choose skim or 1 percent milk and reduced-fat, low-fat or fat-free varieties of cheese and other dairy products such as sour cream and yogurt.
  7. Hydrate with H2O: Keep it simple and calorie-free by opting for water over sugary drinks, such as soda, juices and sports drinks. Also, beware of flavored waters, which often contain high levels of sugar despite their seemingly-healthy names. In addition to cutting back on your sugar and sodium intake, you'll save money by skipping the trip to the vending machine.

Kidney disease kills more than 90,000 Americans annually, more than breast cancer or prostate cancer.

For more information on kidney disease and healthy lifestyle tips to prevent kidney damage, visit the National Kidney Foundation.

For more by Leslie Spry, M.D., FACP, click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.