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6 Things Your Kidneys Wish You'd Stop Doing, According to Experts

These everyday habits wreak havoc on your kidney health.

Your kidneys serve several important functions in the body. Not only do they work hard to remove fluid and waste from over 200 quarts of your blood per day, they also produce hormones that help control your blood pressure, keep your bones healthy, control pH levels, and produce red blood cells, according to the National Kidney Foundation (NKF). Yet despite being an essential organ, many of us put our kidneys through the wringer on a daily basis.

That's why we reached out to S. Adam Ramin, MD, a urologist and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles, California, who says there are several ways you may be ruining your kidney health without realizing it. Read on to learn the six things your kidneys wish you'd stop doing, and to find out how some simple lifestyle swaps could greatly improve your kidney health.

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Eating too much salt

Cheerful old lady adding salt to soup and smiling while standing by the stove with cooking pots

Minimizing your salt intake can have a notable impact on your kidney health, especially if you already have a known kidney problem. According to the NKF, healthy adults can plan on consuming 2,300 mg of sodium per day, while those with kidney disease or high blood pressure should limit themselves to 1,500 mg daily.

"The problem is that when you eat too much salt, the kidneys respond by retaining water in order to dilute it," explains Ramin. "This is a protective measure that helps balance the chemical levels of the blood stream, which is required to keep our hearts in working order. Over time, placing this much stress on the kidneys can cause damage to them and to the heart muscle," he adds. "So next time you sit down at a meal, taste your food before you season it. If it needs a little something more, add just a pinch. Better yet, choose an alternative that adds more flavor without adding more sodium," Ramin advises.

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Eating heavily processed foods

Fast Food Meal

According to a 2022 study published in the journal Nutrition, study subjects who ate the largest amount of ultra-processed foods also had the highest incidence of chronic kidney disease. "The human body and its filtration system, including the kidneys, weren't designed to process the 'fast foods' our society so readily consumes today," Ramin tells Best Life. "Too much of these foods over too long a period effectively shut down the way our bodies handle the waste from them."

The urologist adds that while many health care professionals tout eating "everything in moderation," this can be a misleading concept—especially when it comes to fast food. "One person's idea of moderation might be the next person's idea of excessive. Instead, focus on incorporating or increasing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and water into your diet," he advises. "Doing so will help leave a lot less room for the foods that can ultimately ruin your kidney health."

Eating too much red meat

Cooked Steak
KarepaStock / Shutterstock

There is ample evidence to suggest that animal-based proteins strain the kidneys as they work to eliminate waste from the bloodstream. "Red meat tops that list," Ramin says. He warns that in particular, frequent consumption of red meat has been linked with an increased risk of developing kidney stones.

Though undoubtedly painful, kidney stones aren't the worst possible outcome linked with red meat-heavy diets. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found that red meat intake was "strongly associated" with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) risk in a dose-dependent manner (meaning the more frequently people consumed red meat, the higher their risk became). Meanwhile, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products were not correlated with an increased risk of ESRD.

Both the study authors and Ramin recommend swapping out red meat for plant-based proteins whenever possible. Nuts and seeds, whole grains, beans and legumes, and high-protein vegetables such as peas and broccoli are all considered kidney-healthy options.

Drinking diet soft drinks

A young woman drinking diet soda outdoors

According to the Mayo Clinic, artificial sweeteners can be safe for healthy adults to consume in moderation. However, "some research on long-term, daily use of artificial sweeteners suggests a link to a higher risk of stroke, heart disease and death overall," their experts acknowledge.

One study suggests that diet soda made with artificial sweeteners may also hinder your kidney health, Ramin points out. "A number of years ago, it was reported in an 11-year research study done by Harvard Medical School of more than 3,000 women that diet soda was associated with a doubled increase in declining kidney health," notes Ramin, noting that the same results were not replicated in a study of sugar-sweetened soft drinks. This led the researchers to conclude that the negative effects on the kidneys are associated with the artificial sweeteners found in these beverages, he says.

"My advice: stick to water," urges the urologist. "It has zero calories and is so much better for nearly every organ system in your body, including your kidneys."

Drinking alcohol or taking painkillers too frequently

A group of senior men drinking beer at a bar

According to the NKF, drinking four alcoholic beverages daily can double your risk of chronic kidney disease. Being a smoker can compound this risk. "​​Heavy drinkers who also smoke have an even higher risk of kidney problems. Smokers who are heavy drinkers have about five times the chance of developing chronic kidney disease than people who don't smoke or drink alcohol to excess," the organization writes.

Similarly, individuals who abuse painkillers or other drugs are at higher risk of developing kidney problems, the NKF says. This holds true for over-the-counter pain medicines, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and Analgesics. "Reduce your regular use of NSAIDs and never go over the recommended dosage," their experts urge.

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Having too much caffeine

Person Drinking Black Coffee
Tatevosian Yana / Shutterstock

Finally, Ramin recommends staying away from excessive caffeine in your diet. "Because caffeine is a stimulant, too much of it can increase blood pressure which increases stress on the kidneys and makes them go into 'overdrive,'" he explains, adding that the long term effects of this can include kidney failure.

"Avoid the risk by reducing your intake to no more than one or two daily cups of coffee," Ramin says. However, if you have a known kidney condition, it's best to speak with a doctor or registered dietician about how much caffeine is safe for you.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. If you have specific health questions or concerns, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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