By Pamela Fayerman

We’ve all heard horror stories about the pain associated with kidney stones. Until I had one just over a month ago, I doubted the veracity of the narrative that kidney stone pain was worse than labour and delivery.

Boy, was I wrong about that! I suffered through unrelenting pain for 12 hours before going to the hospital where I waited another nine to finally see a doctor and get intravenous plus oral morphine to settle the extreme agony. The stone was seen on a CT scan and a urologist later performed a ureteroscopy to remove the stone and insert a stent that remained in my bladder and kidney for three weeks. Having that foreign object in your body is another distressing ordeal.

This is an experience I never want to repeat so after I got out of the hospital, I booked an appointment with a dietician to learn what proactive steps I could take to potentially prevent a recurrence of the nightmare that is kidney stones.

Becoming a convert to drinking two litres of water a day is the foundational change one must make to avoid future kidney stones. But as I learned from the dietician, I should fortify water with citrus fruit (lemons, lime slices), restrict salt and avoid eating foods high in oxalates (oxalic acid), a ubiquitous chemical in plants. Some of those foods are notoriously nutritious, including spinach, almonds and beets. But they have high oxalate content and should be avoided by those trying to prevent kidney stones.

I now store a list in my cellphone of high-oxalate foods to avoid. Besides the aforementioned foods, the list includes soy products like tofu, potatoes, rhubarb, raspberries, navy beans, dates and, to my greatest dismay, cocoa (chocolate).

Some nutritionists believe a high oxalate diet may also contribute to inflammatory conditions. Sally Norton is one such expert. She has a nutrition degree from Cornell University and a master’s degree in public health leadership from the University of North Carolina. Her upcoming book called Toxic Superfoods: How Oxylate Overload in Making You Sick and How to Get Better will be released on December 27.

This is her guest post:



I am a nutritionist with a self-inflicted nutritional disease. My mistake was in following all the “best” advice about eating right.

If you’re a conscientious eater with a diet featuring “wholesome” foods like spinach smoothies, chard, almonds, beans, sweet potatoes, turmeric, and quinoa, you need to hear my story.

Despite decades of enthusiastic devotion to healthy eating, exercise, and “clean” living, I was not the picture of vitality and sturdiness. I had gut problems, joint pain, inflammation, a lumpy thyroid, and other symptoms that were stumping my doctors. I was beyond exhausted—unable to read with comprehension, unable to work. A high-tech sleep study showed that I woke up 29 times every hour. Medications did nothing to improve the situation. I was stuck, and no one could help.

Sally K. Norton

 Despite receiving a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a master’s degree in public health leadership from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was never warned that a variety of plant foods could cause health problems. I had to learn the hard way.

 One of my occasional symptoms, genital pain, inspired a google search that brought up an unfamiliar and seemingly non-scientific notion that oxalates in foods can cause pain and problems with connective tissues. Oxalates, a natural chemical, are known to cause kidney stones and urinary tract problems. That didn’t seem a fit for me; I’d never had a kidney stone or bladder symptoms.

 Oxalates are a family of compounds that come from a tiny natural ionic acid and a reactive chelator called oxalic acid—a bleach and rust-removing cleaning chemical in use for over 250 years. Oxalic acid readily hooks up with minerals, such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron. These oxalate salts easily form crystals. Oxalates are ubiquitous in nature—plants, soil fungi, and even pollution create oxalic acid.

 Oxalates ingested from plant foods grab and hold nutritionally valuable minerals in the digestive tract, making it difficult for the body to absorb minerals. Some ingested oxalic acid passes into the bloodstream, where it can also bind minerals. The two-pronged mineral depletion can cause serious problems for long-term health.

In the body, oxalates have a range of additional toxic actions, which directly harm cells, block enzymes and create oxidative stress. They stick to the fats and proteins that make up cell membranes, especially if cells are inflamed, old, wounded, or dying. Over time, the constant use of foods with oxalate—potatoes, peanuts, almonds, chocolate, beans, and spinach—so ubiquitous in our modern diets—leads to accumulation and toxicity.

Even relatively moderate levels of oxalate in a habitual diet can fuel the customary aches and pains of life: digestive distress, inflamed joints, repeated infections, chronic skin issues, brain fog or mood problems, as well as health declines associated with “normal” aging. I’m not special in this ability to be sickened by oxalates.

The surprising health benefits of low-oxalate eating may include the dramatic improvements I saw: far less pain and improved sleep, energy, concentration, and mood—even reversal of osteopenia. I had to consistently shun my beloved sweet potatoes and trusted chard to get there, and my recovery is still unfolding after nine years.

 I am not alone in the ability to recover from the mess that is oxalate poisoning. Many people have found some relief from—or even reversed—a surprisingly diverse variety of conditions simply by swapping their high-oxalate foods for low-oxalate alternatives. In the long term, avoiding oxalates can potentially prevent injury, arthritis, and dementia. 

“Low-oxalate” does not mean “no-oxalate,” so you don’t have to be perfect. The key is to know what you’re eating and how much and to choose your daily staples from nourishing foods with less potential to create chronic problems. It’s simple. Try turnips and cauliflower in place of potatoes and pumpkin seeds. Or have low-fat cheese in place of almonds and peanuts. Use romaine lettuce and arugula instead of spinach or mixed baby greens in your salads and smoothies.

Remember, because the diet change can trigger the release of oxalate from tissues, it’s important to go slow with these changes and it’s paramount to get support from professionals if you have serious health concerns.  

 With just a bit of information, you’ll find it simple and inexpensive to swap out high-oxalate foods for low-oxalate foods. Try it for a few months and see what it does for you. Time to relief is different for everyone, but you might be surprised how much better you feel.

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