Increasing the consumption of plant-based protein could significantly lower the risk of chronic kidney disease (CKD), according to a new study published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases. The research sheds light on a potential dietary approach to enhance kidney health and combat a condition that affects millions worldwide.

The kidneys are critical organs, filtering the blood to remove toxins, control blood pressure, and regulate blood chemicals. Chronic kidney disease is defined as a gradual decline in kidney function over time, posing severe health risks including stroke, heart attack, anemia, and other life-threatening complications. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a staggering 15 percent of American adults—equivalent to around 37 million individuals—are grappling with this condition.

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The study, conducted by researchers from various institutions, including Seung Hyeok Han, MD, PhD, examined the dietary habits of more than 117,000 participants as part of the UK Biobank study—a comprehensive wellness research initiative. 

Subjects had no history of chronic kidney disease and their glomerular filtration rate (the main indicator of kidney function) ranged from early-stage kidney disease to healthy levels. 

Over the course of nearly a decade, researchers tracked the participants’ plant-based protein intake and its potential impact on kidney health. The results were compelling.

Individuals who consumed higher amounts of plant-based protein exhibited a notably reduced likelihood of developing chronic kidney disease. Notably, these individuals also demonstrated improved blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), triglyceride levels, and inflammatory markers. 

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This association held true across all demographic groups, including those with hypertension, diabetes, higher BMI, and elevated inflammation levels.

“We have long suspected that plant-based proteins could hold key benefits for kidney health. Our research suggests that factors such as lower acid load, reduced saturated fat, higher fiber content, and antioxidant properties may contribute to this positive effect,” Han, one of the study’s co-authors, told Health.

How diet affects kidney disease

The relationship between dietary choices and kidney health has long been a subject of study. Animal proteins, frequently consumed in Western diets, have raised concerns due to their potential to trigger inflammation and adversely affect vascular health, potentially contributing to the development of kidney disease. 

In contrast, plant-based proteins are thought to contain higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of saturated fat, making them an attractive option for those looking to safeguard their kidney health.

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Han and his colleagues began their study with the theory that protein from plants offers several advantages over animal protein for the kidneys. In fact, previous studies have indicated that a high consumption of animal protein could significantly increase the risk of CKD. 

A study published in 2019 found that consuming high amounts of processed and “red” meat substantially affects kidney function. Specifically, study participants in the highest quartile of processed meat consumption increased their odds of developing CKD by 99 percent, while those in the highest total meat (red and processed) consumption quartile increased their CKD risk by 73 percent. 

“Higher consumption of total red meat and processed meat was associated with increased risk of incident CKD,” the researchers said in a statement.

“Furthermore, substitution of total red and processed meat in the diet with other sources of dietary protein (such as nuts and legumes) was associated with lower CKD risk,” the researchers added.

However, while the new study results regarding plant-based protein are promising, experts urge caution in interpreting them too simplistically. The observed benefits might be influenced by other healthy behaviors associated with a plant-based diet, such as not smoking and engaging in physical activity. 

Additionally, the complexities of kidney disease and dietary factors require further investigation.

Health benefits of a plant-based diet

Nonetheless, this study underscores the growing body of evidence supporting the health advantages of following a plant-based diet. Such diets have previously been associated with improved cardiovascular health, weight management, cancer risk reduction, and more. 

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A study published earlier this year, for example, found that men with prostate cancer who followed diets containing the highest amounts of plant-based foods had a 52 percent lower risk of disease progression and a 53 percent lower risk of recurrence. 

As researchers delve deeper into the intricate connections between diet and health, the potential of plant-based protein to protect against chronic kidney disease appears increasingly compelling.

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