If you’ve ever had a kidney stone, you know how intense the pain can be. If you haven’t had one, it’s definitely something you want to avoid.
Kidney stones are hard mineral deposits that build up in your kidneys and then travel out of your body through your urinary tract. Sometimes, the stone blocks your kidney so urine can’t pass through it, which can cause a painful feeling. You can also experience pain as the stone makes its way through your urinary tract. And some stones don’t pass on their own — in those cases, you’ll need medical treatment to clear them.
“Left untreated, kidney stones can cause complications such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), kidney dysfunction that can progress to chronic kidney disease or, in extreme cases, irreversible kidney failure,” said Megan Flores, a registered dietitian with Banner Health. “Understanding the risk factors that increase the growth of stones can help prevent stones from developing.”
Here are some steps you can take to avoid kidney stones:
Drink plenty of water
When you’re well hydrated, your urine is more diluted and you’re less likely to have high concentrations of the minerals that can cause kidney stones. “Drinking enough water is one of the best ways to avoid kidney stones. Water acts as a river to help clear out toxins, chemicals and minerals through your kidneys and urinary tract,” Flores said.
Unless a health care provider has advised that you limit your water intake because of other health issues, you’ll want to aim for eight cups (two liters) of water a day – or more if you’re active or in a warm climate. “Beverages such as juices, soda or caffeinated products like teas and coffee don’t count towards your daily water intake,” Flores said.
Lower your sodium intake
When you have too much sodium, it can make it more likely that kidney stones will form. You can cut back on sodium by avoiding processed foods, canned soups and fast food. Instead, use herbs and spices for flavoring when you’re cooking.
Choose a balanced diet
A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins gives you the nutrients and fiber you need and reduces your risk of kidney stones. It’s best to limit processed foods, sugary beverages and red meat. “Balancing your meals and snacks with nutritionally dense foods can help you avoid developing kidney stones,” Flores said.
Keep an eye on oxalate
Some kidney stones are made of calcium oxalate. You take in oxalate when you eat foods like spinach, rhubarb, Swiss chard, beets, sweet potatoes, peanuts, tea and chocolate, but most people can eat these foods in moderation.
You shouldn’t need to eliminate oxalate-rich foods from your diet unless a health care provider has advised you to do so. It’s also best to eat them separately from foods that contain calcium (see below). Having them at different times reduces the odds that the calcium and oxalate will bind together and form kidney stones.
Include a moderate amount of calcium-rich foods
There’s a misconception that you need to avoid foods that are high in calcium to prevent kidney stones, since “calcium” is in the phrase “calcium oxalate.” But you need calcium in your diet for your overall health, and it can reduce the risk of certain types of kidney stones. Low-fat dairy products, leafy greens, certain seeds, nuts and beans and calcium-fortified foods are good options.
Reach for citrus fruits
Citrus fruits are rich in citrate, which prevents certain types of kidney stones from forming. Include citrus fruits such as lemons, oranges and grapefruits in your diet and add fresh lemon or lime juice to your water so you get citrates along with your fluids.
Don’t overdo the protein
When you take in too much protein, especially from animal sources, your body can excrete (get rid of) more calcium and other substances that can cause kidney stones. “Protein is an essential nutrient for your body’s daily needs,” Flores said. Keep your protein intake moderate and include a variety of plant-based proteins like tofu, lentils, beans and nut butters, rather than over-emphasizing animal- or dairy-based proteins.
People with a history of gout, UTIs or kidney stones may need to limit their intake of animal and dairy proteins to help control the amount of uric acid, calcium and oxalates in their urine and reduce the risk of kidney stones.
Talk to a dietitian
A registered dietitian who specializes in kidney stone prevention or renal (kidney) nutrition can give you personalized guidance, help you plan your meals and support you as you navigate any dietary changes you may need to make.
The bottom line
Kidney stones can be very painful. While most pass on their own, some can cause dangerous complications to your health. To lower your risk, make sure you drink plenty of water, choose a balanced diet and limit sodium.
It’s best to consult a health care provider for personalized advice about what to eat to improve your health. If you would like to connect with a dietitian who can help, reach out to Banner Health.