Diet and Food for Better Blood Counts
This article addresses a thoughtful question that was submitted by one of our website participants. This person asked, “What types of food or diet is best for improving blood counts?” This is an excellent question, because low levels of certain types of blood cells can be a side effect of cancer treatment for many people.
“Blood counts” or Complete Blood Count (CBC) refers to tests that examine the types and numbers of cells in the blood, especially red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Healthcare professionals are interested in blood counts because if they drop too low, a person may become more susceptible to infections and other possible complications of cancer treatment.
Your health care team has several medical options for managing low blood counts and you should talk to your doctor if you have questions about these options. As well, you can learn much more about Blood Counts, by reading our information on Diagnosis & Testing Complete Blood Count (CBC).
In addition to medical options, good nutrition should play an important role in helping your body recover and stay healthy during and after treatment. Read on to learn how good nutrition can help you.
Food vs. Nutrition
There aren't any specific foods that are proven to improve blood counts. However, good nutrition overall absolutely is proven to help your body heal and help your blood counts recover as quickly as possible during cancer treatment. Getting good nutrition during treatment is proven to improve quality of life, decrease fatigue, decrease the risk and severity of mucositis (mouth sores) and hand foot syndrome (plantar-palmar toxicity or peeling, itching hands and feet), decrease treatment breaks, and ensure that you are able to receive your prescribed cancer treatments on schedule (1-15).
One of the single most important things you can do during cancer treatment to help your body heal and to help your blood counts recover is to avoid losing weight. If you think about this a bit, it makes sense.
Weight loss occurs when you are eating fewer calories than your body needs for basic functions, such as breathing and metabolism. This forces your body to use its own tissue for energy. In an ideal world, all of this tissue that is burned for energy would be fat tissue. However, during cancer treatment your body is not living in an ideal world.
Cancer treatment puts additional stress on your body. This added stress makes it harder for your body to burn fat tissue for energy when you aren't getting enough calories to maintain weight. This means your body will dip into other areas, like muscle and other body cells to make up for the energy you are not getting from food.
When this happens, when your body is breaking down its own tissue simply to get enough energy for basic functioning, it is too busy to rebuild tissue. Simply put, if your body is busy breaking down tissue, it won't have the energy to build tissue back up, including blood cells!
In a nutshell, losing weight takes energy away from your body's ability to rebuild red and white blood cells. Keep your weight steady and your body can better use those calories you are eating to make new blood cells.
Beyond maintaining your weight, you want to focus on getting in as much healthy, nutritious food as possible. If you can give your body all of the vitamins and minerals it needs from a wide variety of healthy foods, while maintaining your weight, you are on the right track.
The key is that you don’t want to focus so much on” healthy” food that you struggle to keep your weight up. You want to make sure you eat in a way that doesn’t cause weight loss. For example, if you’re not feeling well and just don’t want to eat now is not the time for a big spinach salad! This might be a great choice when you’re feeling well, but it doesn’t have enough calories for someone who’s only able to have a few bites of food at a time. Instead, focus on foods that have more calories and protein, such as chicken, a high calorie shake or smoothie, scrambled eggs, or whatever sounds good to you.
The most important point: Avoid weight loss, if at all possible.
If you are losing weight, talk to your health care team right away about steps you can take to minimize weight loss.
If you are feeling reasonably well, you are not losing weight, and you are not experiencing symptoms that interfere with your ability to eat normally, you should focus on the healthiest diet possible. This means eating lean protein plus plenty of vegetables; fruit; whole grains; and legumes or starchy beans, peas, and lentils. An easy approach for healthy eating is to follow the 75% - 25% principle.
Every time you eat, make sure that 75% (three-fourths) of your plate is covered by healthy plant food, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes. The remaining 25% (one-fourth) should be covered by lean protein, such as fish, chicken, or lean beef. If you prefer to eat a more vegetarian diet, use legumes as your lean protein source.
Following the 75% - 25% principle will help you eat plenty of healthy food without getting bogged down in counting servings or tracking exactly what goes into your mouth.
If your health care provider has indicated that you need more iron to help rebuild red blood cells, there are many steps you can take to get more iron into your diet. To learn about which foods can help you pump more iron into your diet, be sure to read our information on Nutrition for Iron Deficiency Anemia.
A Final Note On Preventing Weight Loss
As I mentioned, this is an ideal way to eat, as long as you are not losing weight. If you are going through treatment and you are losing weight, the most important thing you can do is to eat enough to stop, or at least minimize, the weight loss. The bottom line is that losing weight makes it harder for your body to heal and rebuild itself, including rebuilding those important blood cells.
If you are losing weight, ask your doctor or nurse about medical options for better managing your symptoms. Ask for a referral to a dietitian, if one is available where you are receiving your cancer treatment. In addition to this, you can go to the Nutrition section. There you can click on links for information on Nutrition and Cancer Treatment, Symptom Support, and Recipes. All of these areas will give you ideas, tips, and hints for better eating during cancer treatment.
- Andreyev HJ, Norman AR, Oates J, Cunningham D. Why do patients with weight loss have a worse outcome when undergoing chemotherapy for gastrointestinal malignancies? Eur J Cancer. 1998;34(4):503-9.
- Bauer J, Capra S, Battistutta D, Davidson W, Ash S; Cancer Cachexia Study Group. Compliance with nutrition prescription improves outcomes in patients with unresectable pancreatic cancer. Clin Nutr. 2005;24(6):998-1004.
- Berteretche MV, Dalix AM, d'Ornano AM, Bellisle F, Khayat D, Faurion A. Decreased taste sensitivity in cancer patients under chemotherapy. Support Care Cancer. 2004;12(8):571-76.
- Davidson W, Ash S, Capra S, Bauer J; Cancer Cachexia Study Group. Weight stabilisation is associated with improved survival duration and quality of life in unresectable pancreatic cancer. Clin Nutr. 2004;23(2):239-47.
- Dewys WD, Begg C, Lavin PT, Band PR, Bennett JM, Bertino JR, Cohen MH, Douglass HO Jr, Engstrom PF, Ezdinli EZ, Horton J, Johnson GJ, Moertel CG, Oken MM, Perlia C, Rosenbaum C, Silverstein MN, Skeel RT, Sponzo RW, Tormey DC. Prognostic effect of weight loss prior to chemotherapy in cancer patients. Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group. Am J Med. 1980;69(4):491-7.
- Isenring EA, Bauer JD, Capra S. Nutrition support using the American Dietetic Association medical nutrition therapy protocol for radiation oncology patients improves dietary intake compared with standard practice. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007;107(3):404-12.
- Isenring EA, Capra S, Bauer JD. Nutrition intervention is beneficial in oncology outpatients receiving radiotherapy to the gastrointestinal or head and neck area. Br J Cancer. 2004;91(3):447-52.
- Khalid U, Spiro A, Baldwin C, Sharma B, McGough C, Norman AR, Eisen T, O'Brien ME, Cunningham D, Andreyev HJ. Symptoms and weight loss in patients with gastrointestinal and lung cancer at presentation. Support Care Cancer. 2007;15(1):39-46.
- Odelli C, Burgess D, Bateman L, Hughes A, Ackland S, Gillies J, Collins CE. Nutrition support improves patient outcomes, treatment tolerance and admission characteristics in oesophageal cancer. Clin Oncol (R Coll Radiol). 2005;17(8):639-45.
- Ravasco P, Monteiro Grillo I, Camilo M. Cancer wasting and quality of life react to early individualized nutritional counselling! Clin Nutr. 2007;26(1):7-15.
- Ravasco P, Monteiro-Grillo I, Vidal PM, Camilo ME. Dietary counseling improves patient outcomes: a prospective, randomized, controlled trial in colorectal cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. J Clin Oncol. 2005;23(7):1431-38.
- Ravasco P, Monteiro-Grillo I, Marques Vidal P, Camilo ME. Impact of nutrition on outcome: a prospective randomized controlled trial in patients with head and neck cancer undergoing radiotherapy. Head Neck. 2005;27(8):659-68.
- Ravasco P, Monteiro-Grillo I, Vidal PM, Camilo ME. Cancer: disease and nutrition are key determinants of patients' quality of life. Support Care Cancer. 2004;12(4):246-52.
- Skipworth RJ, Fearon KC. The scientific rationale for optimizing nutritional support in cancer. Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2007;19(5):371-77.
- Van Cutsem E, Arends J. The causes and consequences of cancer-associated malnutrition. Eur J Oncol Nurs. 2005;9 Suppl 2:S51-63.
This content was last reviewed
August 15, 2010 by Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani.