by: PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Chef Aaron McCargo Jr. gives dietary tips to Todd Kromer, as the man undergoes dialysis at Fresenius Medical Care Clackamas.The chief ingredient in Chef Aaron McCargo Jr.’s dishes? That would be love, said the star of “Big Daddy’s House,” a cooking show on the Food Network.

McCargo visited dialysis patients at Fresenius Medical Care in Clackamas on Aug. 10, before he headed back to downtown Portland to cook at The Bite.

His message to those patients, he said, was to tell them they have someone working on their side.

“I gear my recipes to renal diets; to patients who can’t have phosphorus, potassium or salt. I tell them you can still have a big bowl of food, if you just add the right amount of love,” he said.

McCargo said he became interested in helping dialysis patients prepare food when a family member and his pastor both asked him for dietary help because of chronic kidney disease issues.

He then developed recipes for healthy, flavorful dishes that adhere to the dialysis diet.

Soon Fresenius Medical Care, a national company, gave him the opportunity to do what he loves to do, give back to others, McCargo said.

His advice to kidney disease patients, or to anyone really, who wants to make changes and have a healthier diet is simple: do three things.

“First, you have to want to make the change; then you have to take the advice of dietitians; and finally, try out the recipes. Really try them out — I really put my heart into these recipes, and they don’t take away any flavor,” McCargo said.

Dialysis diet

“I commend Chef McCargo for coming to the forefront and cooking without salt,” said Janel Dukelow, a registered nurse, renal dietitian and Right Start case manager. “He is an inspiration to patients who watch the Food Network.”

Dukelow provides ongoing education for patients new to dialysis.

“The dialysis process mimics what normal healthy kidneys do,” she added. “Dialysis is life-sustaining; it cleans the blood of waste, removes excess fluid and balances some of the blood chemistry. And diet is so instrumental in keeping patients healthy and feeling good.”

The basic dialysis diet is low salt, low potassium and low phosphorus, she said, adding that the reason the focus is on low salt is that salt makes us thirsty, and dialysis patients are on fluid restriction.

“They are limited to 32 ounces of total fluid for a whole day, and anything that melts at room temperature is considered a fluid — like jello, ice cream or soup,” Dukelow said.

Foods such as bananas, potatoes, tomatoes or kiwi might seem bland, but they contain a lot of potassium, which can leach calcium out of the bones, she said. Star fruit can be deadly to a dialysis patient and an omelet is a dialysis nightmare, she said.

The key is moderation, Dukelow said. Every month patients get “a nutrition report so we can assess their phosphorous level. They also need to have protein to help maintain their weight.”

Eliminating dairy

“The diet goes against what a lot of people think of as necessary. You have to eliminate milk and cheese, things people use on a daily basis have a high phosphorus level, which can also leach calcium out of the bones,” said Ben Barney, 23, who has been on the renal diet since he was diagnosed with kidney disease at age 14 years.

Barney, a Beavercreek resident and 2008 graduate of Oregon City High School, has had three kidney transplants, all of which were ultimately rejected. He has no kidneys, and goes through dialysis three days a week, from 6 to 10:30 a.m.

Eight years ago, when he first had to go on the dialysis diet, it scared him so much he was measuring everything. He would go to the grocery store with his mother, and he found himself telling her, “I can’t have that anymore.”

He finally started cooking for himself his junior year in high school; recipes on the Internet have been valuable, but even they have all needed a lot modification, he said.

Stores now have products geared to a gluten-free diet, but no aisle for dialysis patients, Barney pointed out. He longs for the day when dialysis patients can walk up and down aisles and easily find food with no salt and no preservatives.

His dream is to get well enough to attend culinary school and get a degree in culinary arts and business management, he said, adding that he’d like to own his own restaurant. He also would like to develop a line of no-salt, no-preservatives, frozen, packaged meals that dialysis patients can take home and heat.

“I was surprised to hear that Chef Aaron wants to do the same thing; it is inspirational that a professional chef wants to do this,” Barney said.


Hidden population’

“We are a hidden population of people struggling with a disease that very few know about," said Troycé Crucchiola, 46, a Clackamas resident.

"Our diet translates into a great program for people to eat healthy, and much can be learned from us in diet as well as coping with life’s challenges.”

Crucchiola was diagnosed with kidney disease when he was 10, during a sports physical to play YMCA basketball.

He began dialysis in 1987 in Portland while he was in his second year of college at PCC Sylvania. He had his first kidney transplant in 1989 and had that kidney for 2 1/2 years.

He was on the dialysis diet until his second kidney transplant in 2003. He lost that kidney in 2008, and has been on dialysis at Fresenius in Clackamas ever since.

When confronted with the dialysis diet, his initial reaction was fear of not getting to eat his favorite foods, but he learned he can eat most things in moderation.

“The biggest change was reducing dairy products, beans and legumes and other foods high in phosphorus,” Crucchiola said, noting that he comes from a big Italian family, where everything was about salt for flavor.

He was the community education coordinator for the National Kidney Foundation of Oregon and Southwest Washington until 2003, when he was laid off, but is still active as a volunteer in the kidney world and works as a paid consultant.

He is an actor, a voice talent and a member of Bad Actors, a six-person band that plays at the kidney walk, kidney camp for teens and kids and the Portland kidney support group summer party.  Crucchiola also has done consulting work with The Oregon Patient Safety Commission, National Kidney Foundation, and Home Dialysis Plus, and will be presenting to the Florida Renal Network in October.

“People are shocked when they hear about our diet; for a chef to step up, that is very cool for us,” Crucchiola told McCargo. “We have so little control over our lives that it is awesome to see your emphasis on cooking fresh.”

“That’s my motivation; it is an adrenalin rush to go to a clinic and create a recipe that people can take home,” McCargo replied, noting that he emphasizes how people can go to any supermarket and buy the ingredients for his recipes, and without breaking the budget.

“Everything in moderation — it’s a process. We need to train our young generation how to eat, and exercise will fall into place. We want to end childhood obesity. I like the fact that I can keep my recipes down to earth and you can bring the family into the kitchen, and cook with love.”

Fast Facts

Chef Aaron McCargo Jr. won season four of “The Next Food Network Star,” in 2008, beating thousands of hopefuls to get his own Food Network show, “Big Daddy’s House.” His focus is on creating budget-wise, healthy and flavorful dishes anyone can cook and enjoy. All of McCargo's dialysis-friendly recipes can be found at

He works in partnership with Fresenius Medical Care, a worldwide provider of dialysis products and services. The company runs more than 1,800 kidney dialysis clinics in the United States, caring for nearly 138,000 patients. 

Fresenius Medical Care Clackamas is at 13560 S.E. 97th Ave., in Clackamas. For more information about the company, visit Fresenius Medical Care at

Chronic Kidney Disease

The two main causes of CKD are diabetes and high blood pressure.

More than 26 million Americans, one in nine adults, have kidney disease, and millions more are at increased risk for getting it, and most don’t know it.

About 382,000 Americans with end-stage kidney disease rely on some form of dialysis to keep them alive.

More than 72,000 patients are on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, but only 18,000 will get a new kidney each year.

The above information courtesy of Fresenius Medical Care.

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