When your immune system is not working properly, your body cannot fight off foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria as it would normally be able to. Bacteria are commonly transmitted through person-to-person contact, but you’re also exposed to bacteria through your food. The neutropenic diet, which forbids uncooked and raw foods, is designed for people who have weakened immune systems as a result of lower-than-normal counts of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell.
Who Needs It?
Neutrophils, also known as granulocytes, are the most abundant white blood cells in the blood. A normal neutrophil count falls between 2,500 and 6,000 cells per cubic millimeter. When your neutrophil count falls below 500 cells per cubic millimeter -- a condition referred to as neutropenia -- your ability to fight off infection diminishes significantly. At this point, your doctor may recommend a neutropenic diet. Neutropenia often occurs as a result of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. Those who have recently undergone an organ transplant or individuals being treated for HIV or AIDS may also need to follow a neutropenic diet.
Getting Down to Basics
The basic rule of the neutropenic diet is to avoid anything raw or not thoroughly cooked. This includes all uncooked vegetables and most uncooked fruits, as well as raw or rare meat, fish and eggs. Eggs must be cooked until the yolk is no longer runny. Fruits with a tough, thick skin, such as bananas and oranges, are OK to eat uncooked. While on a neutropenic diet, you may only have pasteurized milk, cheese, yogurt and dairy products. Yogurt that contains live, active cultures and mold-ripened and blue-veined cheeses, such as brie, Gorgonzola, bleu and Camembert, are not permitted. You may eat lunch meat, but it must come in a vacuum-sealed container, rather than straight from the deli.
As with any other diet, it is important to stay hydrated while following a neutropenic diet. When you are home, tap water is OK. If you drink bottled water, it must be labeled distilled or filtered with reverse osmosis. Well water is acceptable as long as it’s boiled for at least one minute before consumption. Boiling kills any microorganisms that may be present in the water.
A Note on Leftovers
Leftovers are acceptable while following a neutropenic diet, but take care. Wrap leftovers tightly and label them with the date and time. Place leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer immediately. Eat refrigerated leftovers within 24 hours of preparation. Frozen food should not be allowed to thaw at room temperature.
- Utah University Health Care: Reduced Microbial (Neutropenic) Diet
- Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: Neutropenic Diet
- University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: Neutropenic Diet
- Cedars-Sinai Medical Center: Diet Guidelines for Low White Blood Cells
- National Institutes of Health Clinical Center: Understanding Your Complete Blood Count