Kind Cuisine for Kidneys

Flavorful diet offers hope for those with chronic kidney disease

Kind Cuisine for Kidneys
Chris Bovey
Orzo Risotto by Chef Duane Sunwold

Nine years ago, Chef Duane Sunwold, department chair of the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy, dragged himself back from his summer break. “I just couldn’t get over this fatigue. By Fridays, I looked like a walking cadaver,” he sighs. “Then I got a massive migraine… and the right half of my face swelled to ‘Elephant Man’ proportions.”

“My kidneys were spilling the protein albumin like a punctured plane leaking fuel,” he says. Healthy kidneys lose only 50 milligrams of albumin a day in urine. Sunwold was losing 240 times that amount. “I was literally peeing egg whites,” he laughs.

But the diagnosis of chronic kidney disease was no laughing matter. A number of medications failed to slow the progression toward kidney failure.

Desperate to talk to anyone who might offer some hope, Sunwold found Dr. Katherine Tuttle, at Providence Medical Research Center-Sacred Heart. While adjusting his medications, she also mentioned that animal protein was particularly hard on struggling kidneys.

That caught Sunwold’s attention immediately. He passed this “nutrition nugget” along to Erin Clason, the registered dietitian on the SCC faculty. Affectionately known as “The Bean Queen” for her vegan eating habits, she proposed a 90-day experiment eliminating all animal protein from Sunwold’s diet starting the following Monday.

Sunwold went home and promptly ordered four large pepperoni pizzas with extra cheese. He devoured all four, with a little help from a teenage son. “I was like a man eating his last pizzas,” he says, slowly shaking his head and reflecting. “As wonderful as they tasted, I spent the rest of the weekend in bed in miserable pain.”

Come Monday morning, he willingly gave up animal protein. Fourteen days later, under heavy drug treatment for his kidney disease, Sunwold felt better than he had in the past 18 months. Then new lab work confirmed it: He was improving.

Still, changing a lifetime of eating habits is daunting. Dr. Tuttle says it can be hard to convince patients to change their diet. “They would rather take a pill,” she says. Tuttle, who lectures nationally, started speaking about her patients’ results.

Before long, Sunwold was asked to join her. I will never forget the day he told me he was asked to speak to a group of nephrologists at a national kidney conference. “Patty, what should I do? They’re doctors!” he said pleading for answers. I laughed and said, “Duane, you can prepare the best kidney-friendly food in the nation, plus tell the funniest jokes related to your disease. Just prepare a meal, tell your story and be sure to have a few of those doctors be your sous chefs. They’ll love you.”

Kidney diets are the most challenging to make appealing. Sunwold is taking this challenge to new heights. He has rocketed to the national stage as a motivational speaker for kidney patients, renal dietitians and nephrologists, telling the story of his journey while sautéing low-sodium, animal-protein-free, vegan meals that explode with great flavor. It doesn’t stop there. His cookbook is nearly completed, and by offering great flavors, he hopes it will hope improve diet compliance in others with chronic kidney disease.

Developing flavor without salt is Sunwolds’s daily challenge. The recipe on the facing page here is a sneak peak from his new cookbook.


3 tsps. olive oil
3 oz. onion, diced
2 fresh cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups uncooked orzo
4-2/3 cups vegetable stock
1/4 onion, left whole
2 whole cloves
1/2 bay leaf
3 cups rice milk (or soymilk)
1 cup fresh basil leaves (60 leaves)
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup water
1/8 tsp. onion powder
1 oz. soy parmesan cheese

Directions: Heat olive oil in a medium sauce pan. Add diced onions and sauté until translucent. Add minced garlic and cook for one more minute. Add orzo; cook and stir until orzo begins to brown. Add vegetable stock and bring to slow simmer. Cover and cook for 12 minutes.

While orzo is cooking make a slice in the quarter onion. Place bay leaf in the slit and stick the onion with whole cloves. Add onion to rice milk in a pan and bring to a slow simmer. After simmering for 2 minutes, remove the onion. Place fresh basil leaves into food processor and pour about half of the heated rice milk over the leaves. Process until the leaves are minced fine and the liquid turns green. Pour the mixture back into the pan with the remaining rice milk. Mix cornstarch and water together until there are no lumps, then slowly whisk mixture into the simmering basil rice milk. It will thicken quickly once it boils. Remove from heat. Stir in onion powder. Stir mixture into the cooked orzo, sprinkle soy cheese over the top and serve.

Yield: 6 servings, serving size 2/3 cup

Nutrition Notes: Calories 295, fat 4.5g, saturated fat <1g, carbohydrates 54g, protein 8g, calcium 93mg, sodium 130mg, phosphorus 166mg, potassium 266mg, fiber 2.5g

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