Leukopenia foods: What to eat with a low white blood cell count


This article provided by Caitlyn DeLaney, graduate student in medical nutrition.

White blood cells (WBCs) are a type of blood cell found in your blood and lymph tissues. As part of your immune system, WBCs help fight infections. The medical term for low white blood cell counts is leukopenia.

Chemotherapy and leukopenia

Low WBC counts can occur at different times throughout chemotherapy treatments. The amount of time it takes for WBCs to return to normal varies from patient to patient. Commonly, WBC counts will return to normal after cancer therapy is completed. Most cancer survivors, however, will recover their WBCs much more quickly. 

Which diet is best for people with leukopenia?

Currently, research doesn't support specific foods or diets that can increase white blood cells. You don't need to avoid fresh fruit and vegetables, because it hasn't been shown to reduce the number of major infections. However, wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before you eat them to stay safe.

Avoid these foods (to reduce your risk of infection):

  • Raw meat, eggs and fish
  • Moldy or expired food
  • Unwashed fruit and vegetables
  • Unpasteurized beverages, including fruit and vegetable juice, beer and milk 
  • Unpasteurized honey

If you have leukopenia, be extra cautious to avoid infection.

  • Practice good hygiene. Use antibacterial soap and warm water and scrub your hands for 15 to 30 seconds
  • Wash your hands a lot. Wash your hands many times throughout the day, and every time before you prepare or eat food
  • Order it well-done. Cook meats completely (beef, chicken, fish and eggs) to kill all bacteria

Why cancer survivors need protein

Good quality protein is important for cancer survivors. Our bodies use materials from the protein we eat to make new WBCs. Some sources of quality protein are fish, eggs, poultry, beef, milk, Greek yogurt and beans. If your diet is poor, or you're having trouble eating, you can take a multivitamin or supplement with vitamin B12 and folate. The body uses vitamin B12 and folate to make WBCs. However, always talk to your doctor or dietitian before taking dietary supplements, because some of these products should not be taken with certain chemotherapy treatments.

For nutrition guidance and practical support, get involved with our Cancer Survivorship Program.