Helping you live a better life on dialysis

Print Page


What’s the beef with protein? Your body needs it for healthy muscles, bones, hair, and skin. Your cells, organs, and muscles are protein structures, made of building blocks called amino acids. Your body can make some amino acids, but not all of them. The amino acids your body cannot make, you get by eating protein foods in animal or plant forms.

Most healthy Americans eat more protein than their bodies really need. But many people with kidney failure lose their desire for protein foods. Look in our Recipe Center for some delicious protein-rich food ideas. Peritoneal dialysis (PD) can cause some protein loss through the membrane. And standard in-center hemodialysis (HD) causes your body to break down protein faster than usual. So you may need to make an effort to get enough protein in your diet.

You may hear talk of “high quality” or “high biological value” protein vs. “low quality” or “low biological value” protein. High quality protein sources have more of the essential amino acids, which humans cannot make.

Some forms of “high quality” protein are:

  • Beef, pork, and lamb
  • Chicken, turkey, and other birds
  • Fish, shrimp, and other seafood
  • Eggs
  • Soy (e.g., tofu, tempeh, and edamame)

Some forms of “low quality” protein are:

  • Nuts
  • Dry beans and peas
  • Some grains (e.g., amaranth, buckwheat, enriched cornmeal, quinoa, brown rice, and dark rye)

If you do not eat enough protein - and you lose protein from dialysis - your body will start to use the protein in your muscles for fuel. This can cause muscle wasting over time. Muscle wasting leads to:

  • Severe fatigue
  • Loss of mental alertness
  • A higher risk of infections
  • Weight loss

If you are at a friend’s house or a restaurant, how do you know how much protein you are getting in a serving? Here is an easy way to remember:

  • A matchbook-size portion is about 1 ounce
  • A deck of cards-size portion is about 3 ounces
  • A paperback book-size portion is about 8 ounces

Monthly Lab Tests

Your monthly lab tests during kidney dialysis treatments are another way to know if you are getting enough protein. Serum albumin is a test that measures protein in your blood. You should strive for an albumin level greater than 4 grams per deciliter (4.0 g/dL). Research has shown that albumin levels greater than 4.0 g/dL are linked with longer life for people on dialysis. Albumin levels lower than 4.0 g/dL are linked with a higher risk of death.

Dialysis And Using Protein Supplements 

If you need more protein, check with your dietitian. Many high protein foods are also high in phosphorus. Your dietitian will help you adjust your food choices and your phosphorus binder for the best results.

Some protein powders are safe for you to use - again, check with your dietitian. He or she is likely to suggest a powder based on whey protein. These powders can be added to regular or sugar-free (no added sugar) foods like:

  • Pudding or cream pie fillings
  • Applesauce
  • Shakes, fruit juice, or milk
  • Low-sodium soups

An easy way to use protein powder is to mix 1-2 tablespoons with a little bit of water to make a paste. Then add the paste to your choice of foods. You can find recipes for adding protein like Power Shake, Fruity Frozen Dessert, and Fruit Smoothie in the Recipe Center.



Content from Kidney School, a program of the Medical Education Institute, Inc.