Eating This May Improve Kidney Health, Says Intriguing New Study

Updated: Jun. 03, 2024

New research out of Italy spoons up the go-ahead to enjoy an occasional sweet, with a few checkmarks to make your frosty treat a healthy choice.

Italian culture is famous for many things—a diet that promotes longevity being one of them. It’s usually the antioxidant-rich tomatoes and other vegetables—as well as fish, olive oil and other healthy fats—that get most of the attention. In a tasty twist, medical researchers in Sicily have found that there are cases when a particular frozen treat may actually be beneficial to optimizing the health of a key organ that needs a lot of love.

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National data suggest that more than 37 million Americans have chronic kidney disease. That’s close to the very same number who are dealing with diabetes, a metabolic and endocrinological condition to which kidney issues are often closely related.

For a May 2024 study published in the international, peer-reviewed journal Medical Sciences, a team of university and medical researchers in the Sicilian coastal city of Messina noted that for patients diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, experts advise mindfulness with nutritional considerations like processed foods, sodium, saturated fat, fluid and electrolyte intake, phosphorous, potassium, and protein.

But the researchers acknowledged that such a disciplined, perhaps even bland, diet can “make it difficult to maintain the dietary regimen for excessively prolonged periods as they tend to become frustrated and unwilling to give up” opportunities to gather with friends and loved ones around these foods. “[…A]s these patients are on a restricted diet for extended periods,” they said, “ice cream could be a valid and enjoyable alternative to other foods during non-acute and moderately severe periods, making the diet less monotonous and more rewarding.”

So, as the Italians do, they found a way to introduce more pleasure. The research team followed 36 patients with chronic kidney failure, and proposed two diets: Both were low in protein and sodium, included five meals a day and encouraged the use of fruits, vegetables and extra virgin olive oil. However, Diet B replaced two snacks each week with lemon sorbet instead of the fruit participants on Diet A would eat.

fresh Lemons with leaves in a crateAlexander Spatari/GETTY IMAGES

After six months, the researchers checked various health indicators, such as kidney function and immune system health. They found that:

  • The group who ate Diet B had healthier levels of waste product in their blood, indicating that the kidneys had done an appropriate job of filtering the blood.
  • The group who ate Diet B showed “significant” improvement in certain nutritional markers such as transferrin, a protein that transports iron throughout the body.
  • The Diet B group showed improved levels of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that helps the immune system function.

Ultimately, here was the scoop: “The results indicated that ice cream represented a good alternative food in both groups of patients regarding nutritional values and patient satisfaction,” the research team reported, adding: “This study concludes that ice cream could exert beneficial effects in addition to [chronic kidney disease] patients’ dietary regimens.”

This leads to some dessert takeaways that may apply even to many non-chronic kidney disease patients:

  • Practice moderation, as eating this frozen treat “must be scheduled in a balanced diet,” the team suggested. In this study, that meant twice per week.
  • Make a healthy choice. For this patient population, the researchers ruled out what they called “milk-based ice creams,” whose main ingredients they note are often milk, sugar, eggs, and sometimes, especially in the US, vegetable fats. They also note how many “fruit-based ice creams … present greater glucose contents,” when sugar is usually important for patients with metabolic issues to avoid or eat very little of. They considered yogurt-based ice creams, which they said are “experiencing growing interest.” However the protein content in frozen yogurt products was possibly a caution for this patient sample.
  • “The only fruit ice creams based on water are strawberry ice cream and lemon ice cream,” the researchers said. In this case, lemon sorbet was the refreshing winner that provided enough tang to keep diets feeling diverse but staying within healthy parameters.