Why a plant-based diet might be better for your kidneys


by Donald Wesson, MD, MBA

Sep 19, 2018

There’s a lot of conversation around plant-based, vegan and vegetarian diets as the “healthy” choice. But what makes these diets better for us? Is this even scientifically true?

That’s one area medical research continues to explore. Plant-based diets have already been proven to lower your risk of conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity. As a nephrologist, or kidney doctor, I’m especially interested in the connection between diet and kidney health. My recent research has focused on comparing the effects of plant-based protein versus animal-based protein on our kidneys.

Our question was this: Could a predominantly plant-based diet be better for our kidneys?

Reversing the plant-to-meat ratio

One of our big jobs as kidney doctors is to try to prevent kidney disease that is already established from getting worse, to the point that a patient’s only options are dialysis or a kidney transplant. We typically do this through anti-hypertensive medications.

But we wanted to explore how lifestyle factors like diet could influence kidney health over time. If we could better understand what factors influence the progression of kidney disease, we could give our patients better odds.

For this study, all participants had already lost partial kidney function, but had enough remaining to avoid dialysis or kidney transplant for the time being.

We split them into two groups:

  • One group continued their regular diets, which contained significant amounts of meat and smaller amounts of plant-based foods.
  • The other group was placed on a diet with the opposite ratio — predominantly plant-based with very little meat.

The goal was to measure the effects of reversing this plant-to-meat ratio. To do this, we tracked the kidney function of these patients over a period of three years.

Our findings? The plant-based diet actually appeared to slow down any decrease in kidney function.

Adding to the growing body of plant-based research

This is a significant step in our understanding and treatment of kidney conditions, but more than that, it’s another proof point of the benefits of plant-based, or predominantly plant-based, eating.

But let me hasten to add — these results do not suggest that you should become vegan or vegetarian. Some people misinterpret our studies and think, oh my goodness, I need to become a vegan. But that is not what this research suggests.

What it does suggest is that plant-based foods appear to be kinder to the kidneys than animal-based foods over time.

While this particular study focused on people who had already lost partial kidney function, our next step is to see if these findings hold up in people with healthy kidneys — and I expect they will.

As we continue to explore the effects of plant-based eating, we add to the growing belief that for many reasons, it might be time for us to make a change. As more people join the plant-based movement, we continue to look to research for evidence.

Want to improve your well-being and further the field of medicine? Learn more about how you can get involved in ongoing research studies at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute.

About the Author

Donald Wesson, MD, MBA, is president of the Baylor Scott & White Health and Wellness Center at the Juanita J. Craft Recreation Center, as well as senior Vice President of Baylor Scott & White Weight Management Services. Dr. Wesson is an advocate for improving the health of communities through focused, data driven population health initiatives. He received his undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and attended Washington University School of Medicine. He earned his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and completed his Internal Medicine residency and internship at Baylor College of Medicine, and his nephrology research fellowship at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He earned his Masters of Business Administration from the University of Texas at Austin.

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