By now, we’ve all seen the studies that link eating meat to increasing risks of all kinds of diseases, with most research centered around its role in heart disease and certain types of cancer. And for good reason: both have been the two leading causes of death in the United States for more than a decade.
Simultaneously, research continues to point to the positive health benefits of following a plant-based diet on these and other major illnesses such as chronic kidney disease (CKD), a condition characterized by a gradual loss of kidney function that affects millions globally and can lead to serious health complications.
One recent study from the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) presents a compelling case for re-evaluating dietary habits, particularly meat consumption, in the context of urinary and kidney health.
Diet’s role in chronic kidney disease
CKD is a growing concern, with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that about 15 percent of American adults are grappling with CKD.
The kidneys play a vital role in filtering blood, removing toxins, controlling blood pressure, and regulating blood chemicals. Any impairment in their function can lead to life-threatening conditions like stroke and heart attack.
Is following a plant-based diet key to healthy kidneys? The NKF study says yes, but with an asterisk.
Led by Casey M. Rebholz, PhD, from the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the study points to the benefits of adhering to a plant-based diet for CKD patients. The study, titled “Adherence to Plant-based Diets and Risk of Chronic Kidney Disease Progression and All-Cause Mortality,” involved 2,539 participants from the Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort study.
Key findings indicated that participants with the highest adherence to plant-based diets—especially those that include healthy options like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—have a 26-percent lower risk of dying from various causes.
The caveat? Those who follow plant-based diets but lean towards less healthy options, such as excessive sweets or fried foods, face increased health risks. Specifically, every 10-point increase in consumption of these unhealthy plant-based foods is linked to a 14-percent higher risk of kidney disease progression and an 11-percent increase in the risk of dying from any cause.
“It sounds like conventional wisdom, but the results of this study could have far-reaching implications,” Kevin Longino, Chief Executive Officer of the NKF, and a kidney donation recipient, said in a statement.
“These findings challenge some of the status quo in nutritional guidance while offering actionable insights for healthcare professionals and CKD patients, providing a potential avenue for enhancing their well-being—and even their survival,” Longino said.
The study suggests a shift from traditional dietary restrictions for CKD patients—which typically included advice to limit protein intake—towards a more inclusive approach focusing on diet quality, particularly in the realm of plants.
A plant-based diet for kidney health
The NKF study builds on other research on the topic of diet and CKD. A recent study published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases shed new light on the potential benefits of plant-based proteins in reducing the risk of CKD.
The research, part of the comprehensive UK Biobank study, involved over 117,000 participants who were monitored for nearly a decade. The focus was on their intake of plant-based proteins and the subsequent impact on kidney health.
The results were revealing: individuals consuming higher amounts of plant-based protein showed a notably lower likelihood of developing CKD.
“We have long suspected that plant-based proteins could hold key benefits for kidney health,” Seung Hyeok Han, MD, PhD, a co-author of the study, told 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 said.
The positive association between plant-based protein consumption and reduced CKD risk held across various demographic groups, including individuals with hypertension, diabetes, higher BMI, and elevated inflammation levels. This universality suggests that a shift towards plant-based diets could be a crucial strategy in combating the prevalence of CKD.
Eating meat wrecks urinary health
Healthy kidneys are one part of urinary health and eating plants, including plant proteins, seems like a good way to keep them functioning well. How does meat fare when it comes to urinary health? It turns out, not as well.
Research has shown that eating animal meat of all kinds can have negative effects on urinary health, particularly when it comes to urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Published in One Health, research led by Lance Price and Cindy Liu from George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health examined the connection between food-borne zoonotic E. coli, commonly found in meat, and urinary tract infections.
Using a new genomic approach for tracking the origins of E. coli infections, the team estimated that between 480,000 and 640,000 UTIs in the United States each year could be attributed to foodborne E. coli strains. This alarming statistic highlights a significant public health concern, considering the common presence of E. coli in meat products.
The study involved collecting and analyzing E. coli samples from raw chicken, turkey, and pork—purchased from grocery stores in Flagstaff, AZ—and comparing them with E. coli isolates from patients with UTIs. The results? Approximately 8 percent of UTI cases in the Flagstaff area could be linked to meat consumption.