Red blood cells, or RBCs, transport oxygen taken in when you inhale to your organs and tissues. They also carry the metabolic byproduct carbon dioxide to the lungs, where the gas is expelled when you exhale. RBCs survive in your circulation system for approximately 120 days.
Your bone marrow continually produces new RBCs to replace those that have reached the end of their natural life span. Eating foods that contain certain required nutrients can help increase your bone marrow's RBC production. This is particularly important if you have anemia or low RBCs, caused by one or more nutritional deficiencies.
Your bone marrow requires iron to make hemoglobin, the iron-containing protein within RBCs that carries oxygen and carbon dioxide. In the United States, wheat and many other flours are fortified with iron.
As such, products such as breakfast cereals, crackers, pasta, bread and other baked goods serve as an important source of dietary iron. Other foods rich in iron include:
Lean red meats — beef, lamb
Organ meats — liver, kidneys, giblets
Seafood — clams, oysters, mussels, octopus, crab
Fish — anchovies, sardines, mackerel
Poultry and eggs — goose, emu, duck, turkey leg, ground turkey
Legumes — cowpeas, kidney beans, soybeans, tofu, mung beans, white beans, lima beans, lentils, chickpeas
Vegetables — mushrooms, potatoes with skins, leeks, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, greens, kimchi
Fruits — dried goji berries, dried apricots, dried peaches, prunes, raisins, olives, persimmons, figs
Nuts — cashews, pine nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, pecans
Seeds — pumpkin seeds, squash seeds,
sunflower seeds and tahini, chia seeds
Read more: Foods to Eat If You Have Low Iron
Vitamin B12-Rich Foods
Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, participates in many biochemical reactions throughout your body and plays a key role in the replication of bone marrow red blood cells — primarily in the duplication of the genetic material, or DNA, that must take place before these cells divide.
A vitamin B12 deficiency makes RBC production inefficient, potentially leading to anemia. Animal-based foods naturally contain vitamin B12. In general, the same lean red meats, organ meats, seafood and poultry with high levels of iron are also rich in vitamin B12. Fish not already mentioned with high levels of B12 include herring, tuna, trout, bluefish and salmon.
Foods made from fortified flours are high in vitamin B12. Milk, cheese and other dairy products also supply dietary vitamin B12, an important source of the nutrient if you follow an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet.
If you follow a strict vegan diet, possible sources of vitamin B12, in addition to fortified grain foods, include nutritional yeast, tempeh, and some types of edible mushrooms and algae. However, you might need a vegan B12 supplement to meet your body's needs if you develop a deficiency.
Folate, or vitamin B9, is another nutrient necessary for normal RBC count. Like vitamin B12, folate plays a key role in the duplication of DNA, a critical step in producing new red blood cells. Although a vitamin B12 deficiency is more common, a folate deficiency can also lead to anemia. When vitamin B12 is deficient, active folic acid may also be deficient.
Folate occurs naturally in a wide variety of plant and animal foods. Good animal sources of folate largely mirror those for iron and vitamin B12, namely meats, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy products.
- Vegetables — edamame, asparagus, okra, peas, endive, kale, collards, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, beets, broccoli
- Legumes — fava beans, pinto beans, navy beans, black beans, peanuts, peanut butter
- Fruits — avocados, guavas, mangoes, boysenberries, oranges, pomegranates, papayas, blackberries, kiwifruit
- Nuts — mixed nuts
Read more: What Should You Drink When You Have Anemia?
Other Dietary Considerations
In addition to iron, vitamin B12 and folate, other nutrients also play roles in RBC production, including protein, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin C, calcium, copper, cobalt, selenium and zinc.
Therefore, it's important to eat a well-balanced diet with a wide array of foods to optimally support red blood cell production. Based on the results of an RBC blood test, your healthcare provider might offer specific dietary recommendations, supplements or other interventions to optimize your RBC count.
Read more: Foods High in Iron and Vitamin C
Is This an Emergency?
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Iron
- Nutrients: Vitamin B12-Containing Plant Food Sources for Vegetarians
- Journal of General and Family Medicine: Diagnosis and Treatment of Macrocytic Anemias in Adults
- Healthline: How to Increase Your Red Blood Cell Count
- Anatomy and Physiology: Chapter 18: The Cardiovascular System: Blood
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Folate