Diet to Raise a Chemo Patient's Blood Count

Fresh salmon on the cutting board.
A diet high in iron is necessary to promote the production of red blood cells. (Image: ValentynVolkov/iStock/GettyImages)

Cancer treatments have evolved over time, with the aim of making them more comfortable for people receiving them. But fighting something as stubborn as most cancers requires bringing out the big guns, and the rest of your body can get caught in the crossfire.

One of the most common side effects of undergoing chemotherapy is a low red blood cell count, or anemia. Fortunately, it is not hard to encourage healthy new red blood cells through diet alone.

How Chemotherapy Affects Your Body

Chemotherapy uses a variety of powerful chemicals to fight fast-growing cells in your body. This is because cancer cells grow faster than healthy cells, explain the experts at the Mayo Clinic. This can cause any number of side effects, from serious ones such as a low white blood cell count a treatment diet won't solve, to a low red blood cell count that is not hard to bring up through proper nutrition.

Other common side effects may include nausea, hair loss, constipation or diarrhea, fatigue, fever and body aches. Most side effects of chemotherapy are temporary and can be treated with rest, proper nutrition, staying hydrated and using over-the-counter remedies as advised and approved by your cancer specialist. One of the most common side effects of chemo is anemia.

Signs and Symptoms of Anemia

Anemia occurs when you experience a lowered level of red blood cells. They are necessary to carry oxygen to every cell in your body, according to the health experts at University of New Mexico's Comprehensive Cancer Center. Without enough oxygen in your bloodstream, you can feel fatigued and short of breath. Anemia can also exacerbate heart conditions.

Low red blood cell count and cancer treatments often go hand in hand, so it is possible that your doctor is monitoring this and will let you know when you need to step up your nutrition game. Make sure you inform your health-care specialist if you have any of the symptoms of anemia such as fatigue, a fast heartbeat, dizziness, feeling cold, inability to concentrate, loss of interest in sex, extreme paleness or chest pains.

The best way to treat anemia, according to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's cancer experts, is to eat a varied diet containing both heme and non-heme iron. The wide variety of foods containing iron is especially good news for anyone on a vegetarian, vegan, low carb or keto diet.

Foods to Increase Red Blood Cells During Chemo

A diet high in iron is necessary to promote the production of red blood cells. There are two types of iron available to you in food form, explain the hematology experts at Stanford Blood Center. Heme iron comes from animal products such as meats, fish and dairy and is more easily absorbed by your body than the non-heme type.

Non-heme iron is found in avocados, bran, creamed wheat cereal, soy milk and tofu, and in whole breads, cereals and pastas. Non-heme iron is harder for your body to absorb fully, so non-heme foods should always be taken with some form of vitamin C, preferably that found in fresh fruits such as citrus, pineapple and strawberries or in fresh vegetables such as cooked mushrooms and spinach, tomatoes, bell peppers and broccoli.

The cancer specialists at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center also remind you that no matter what kind of meal plan you are following, it is also crucial to stay well hydrated. This can help ease symptoms such as nausea and constipation, and can keep diarrhea an inconvenience rather than a medical emergency. If loss of appetite is a concern, a liquid diet of protein shakes taken with supplements may help.

Occasionally, your white blood cell level may also drop due to your cancer treatment. If your white blood cell count, or WBC, low means that your physician has become concerned, you will need medical treatment because there is no way to raise those levels through diet alone.

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