Carol Sallasvaara has made drastic changes to her diet over her decades with chronic kidney disease.

The Kitchener, Ont. resident, 50, switched her favourite food groups after her kidney function slowly declined. By the time Sallasvaara reached the end of her 20s, she was referred to a renal dietitian.

"That was I would say my big eye opener because I'd grown up on a farm. We were meat and potatoes people," Sallasvaara said in an interview on Thursday, marking World Kidney Day. "The biggest thing for me was when the dietitian said 'OK, you need to be on a lower protein intake.'"

Slashing her meat intake in favour of more rice and pasta was the drastic change.  Sallasvaara also had to watch her potassium, meaning no more diet pop.

Sallasvaara's kidney issues first occurred when she was eight years old. She lost her right kidney to an infection, along with the ureter leading from the kidney to the bladder.

Cooking pasta

Kidney patients often need to make more diet changes after a transplant. (William West/AFP/Getty)

Then when she was 19, she noticed the protein levels in her urine were off during a university microbiology lab assignment. She was diagnosed a year later.

When she hit end-stage kidney disease, her balance of electrolytes became particularly important.  Sallasvaara was fortunate to receive a kidney transplant from her sister in 2003.

The transplant was a life-saver but it wasn't a cure all. One of the immunosuppressant drugs she takes can cause potassium levels to rise. 

Neglected vital organ

She continues to eat less potassium than the average person to keep it under control.

"It's a silent killer," Sallasvaara said of potassium, which is important for muscle function, including for the heart.

The diets that kidney patients need to follow are highly variable. For instance for some, phosphorus is critical. 

About one in 10 people has some form of chronic kidney disease, said dietitian June Martin at Grand River Hospital's renal program in Kitchener, Ont., part of the Ontario Renal Network.

"Most of us don't think about our kidneys from day to day," Martin said.

Martin has three tips for people with healthy kidneys:

  • Choose unprocessed, fresh and wholesome foods.
  • Make sure you're getting enough fluids because "kidneys like to be wet."
  • Limit salt intake, since the kidneys have to clean out extra sodium from the blood. Large amounts of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, which also makes a hit on the organs.

Most people consider the kidneys simply in terms of helping to produce urine, Sallasvaara said. "The kidney produces a hormone that helps your blood vessels contract and dilate. As soon as that kidney isn't functioning properly, you're not getting that hormone and so what's happening now is your heart is working harder. It's so vital."

Since the kidneys and heart are interrelated, maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure helps both.

This year's theme for World Kidney Day is "healthy lifestyle for healthy kidneys."

With files from CBC's Amina Zafar