Red blood cells, or RBCs, transport oxygen taken in when you inhale to your body 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 for approximately 115 days.
Video of the Day
Your bone marrow continually produces new RBCs to replace those that have reached the end of their natural lifespan. 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 a low level of 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 including 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
- Organs 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, persimmon, figs
- Nuts -- cashews, pine nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, pecans
pumpkin seeds, squash seeds,
sunflower seeds, chia seeds, tahini
Vitamin B12-Rich Foods
Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, participates in many biochemical reactions throughout your body. It plays a key role in the replication of bone marrow 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 the vitamin include herring, tuna, trout, bluefish and salmon.
Foods made from fortified flours serve as additional sources of vitamin B12. Milk, cheese and other dairy products also supply dietary vitamin B12, an important source of the nutrient if you follow a lacto-ovo 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've developed a deficiency.
Folate, or vitamin B9, is another nutrient necessary for normal RBC production. Like vitamin B12, folate plays a key role in the duplication of DNA, a critical step in producing new RBCs. Although vitamin B12 deficiency is more common, a folate deficiency can also lead to anemia. Some people have deficiencies of both B12 and folate.
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.
Similarly, foods made from fortified grain flours also provide a significant amount of dietary folic acid, the man-made form of folate. Other plant foods not already mentioned that are rich in folate include:
- 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
- Seeds -- sesame butter
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 RBC production. Your healthcare provider might offer specific dietary recommendations, supplements or other interventions to optimize RBC production, based on your individual circumstances.
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: Iron
- Transfusion Medicine and Hemotherapy: Measurement of Red Cell Lifespan and Aging
- Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine: Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Common and Curable Disease
- US Department of Agriculture: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
- Nutrients: Vitamin B12-Containing Plant Food Sources for Vegetarians
- Journal of General and Family Medicine: Diagnosis and Treatment of Macrocytic Anemias in Adults