Kids’ Kidneys: How to Keep Them Healthy

If you think about the health of your kids’ kidneys, you’re likely among the minority. As highlighted in a recent New York Times article, kidney disease is an under-the-radar condition that many of us give little thought to. When it comes to kids, many of us parents, pediatricians, and dietitians tend to focus more on preventing obesity or protecting heart health—important issues in their own right—than on promoting kidney health. But because maintaining healthy kidney function is so vital for a healthy body, its prudent for us to think about kidneys when feeding and raising our kids.

According to the National Kidney Disease Education Program (NKDEP), the main job of the kidneys is to filter wastes and extra water from the blood. Wastes and water then pass through the kidneys and leave the body as urine. Kidneys also make hormones that help the body make blood and strengthen bones. When kidney disease develops, wastes aren’t properly cleared from the body—and that can increase the risk of heart disease and eventually progress to kidney failure.

The NKDEP says that overweight children or those with a family member who has kidney disease or heart disease may be at risk for kidney disease. Kids who were born premature or have diabetes or high blood pressure can also be at risk. Signs of kidney disease, according to the NKDEP, can include pain in the back, side, or lower belly; burning or pain when urinating, changes in urine, or often wetting his or her pants; unexplained fever; swelling in the feet, ankles, or legs; waking up with swollen eyelids; or becoming dehydrated often. Speak with a doctor if your child has any of these symptoms.

To help your kids keep their kidneys healthy, I turned to Zari Ginsburg*, MS, RD, CDN for advice. A mother of three and a registered dietitian who specializes in kidney and cardiac issues, Ginsburg—and her three siblings and mother—have Polycystic Kidney Disease. Although their condition is genetic, Ginsburg and her family know firsthand the enormous physical and emotional toll kidney disease has on families.

Below are Ginsburg’s top tips to help all kids—even those with no family history of kidney or heart disease—protect their kidneys:

Diet right. According to Ginsburg, today’s diets are so much more extreme—and unhealthy—than they used to be. “Between vitamin waters and sports or energy drinks, and processed ‘superfoods’—foods that are pumped up with sometimes large amounts of nutrients—kids risk getting too much of certain nutrients,” she says. She also points out that excess intakes of protein and sodium can be a problem, especially for kids who may have a genetic kidney disorder they don’t know about, or have a family history of kidney or cardiac problems. For most children, Ginsburg recommends a balanced diet with about half of daily calories from carbohydrate, 10 to 20% from lean protein, and the rest from fat.

Drink right. To keep kidneys healthy, Ginsburg recommends that kids stay hydrated—mostly by drinking water. Their pee should be pale in color, and they should drink more than usual when exercising—especially under a hot sun. She also recommends that kids avoid nutrient-spiked drinks unless they’re exercising for 1.5 hours or more—and even then to limit the amounts they consume. She says, “Even if they’re playing sports or running around for long periods of time, kids shouldn’t guzzle down bottle after bottle of sports drinks to stay hydrated—water is still the best and safest bet to meet most of their fluid needs.”

Slash sodium. Because too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, Ginsburg recommends that kids meet current government guidelines for sodium intake—between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams daily. She says, “Eating more produce and other whole foods, choosing fewer processed foods—emphasizing those with made without added salt or sauce—and reducing intake of prepared foods, especially those that are breaded, cheesy, or saucy can help lower sodium intake.” She adds, “Cooking more at home can also help families slash sodium.”

Pump up potassium. Ginsburg says it’s key that kids eat plenty of potassium-rich foods** including fresh fruits and vegetables (including white potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, and low sodium tomato products), beans, lean meats, and low fat dairy products. “Potassium helps balance water levels in the body and can reduce the possible effects of sodium on blood pressure,” she says.

*Full disclosure: Zari Ginsburg is one of my best friends.

**Anyone with advanced kidney disease should speak with a physician before adding extra potassium to the diet.

Image of child with fruits and vegetables via Shutterstock.

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