Diet Dos and Don'ts With Neutropenia

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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If you have neutropenia, you've probably heard that washing your hands is important to avoid potentially harmful germs. But did you know that what you eat may be important, too? Although we don't like to think about it, bacteria are in many of the foods we consume each day. But some fare is worse than others. Thankfully, you have the ability to control your diet and reduce your exposure to the worst offenders.

Many health experts believe that people with a low white blood cell count can benefit from eating a low-microbial diet. This type of diet limits foods that are likely to carry high levels of bacteria, and it can potentially reduce the risk for infection. Here's what you need to know:

Begin at the Grocery Store

What foods you buy in the grocery store can make or break your safe-eating diet. But so can how you buy them. To reduce your exposure to bacteria, do not buy food in cans that are dented or damaged. Also, pick up dairy products and other cold foods at the end of your shopping trip so they don't get warm.

 Focus on Preparation

Properly preparing your foods can go a long way in reducing the risk of getting sick. For example, always cook your foods thoroughly. Scrub fruits and vegetables with a vegetable brush before cutting them. Don't save leftovers for more than 24 hours. And make sure you keep raw meat or poultry separated from other foods.

Choose Wisely

To protect yourself against potential illness, it's wise to avoid certain foods whenever possible. Some food is more susceptible to bacteria than others, such as raw fish or unpasteurized milk. Sometimes the food source is high-risk, such as a deli or a sidewalk vendor. Avoid eating food from these sources.

Thankfully, there are comparable substitutions for most of these foods so you never have to feel deprived. Below are foods to avoid and some alternatives to try.

  • Dairy. Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, such as raw milk or yogurt made from unpasteurized milk. Opt instead for pasteurized milk and yogurt. Stay away from soft-serve ice cream or frozen yogurt. Instead, choose packaged ice cream or frozen yogurt products.

  • Fruits and Vegetables. Some experts believe that people with neutropenia should stay away from all raw vegetables. Others say they are safe to eat if washed thoroughly with a vegetable brush. Avoid vegetable sprouts like alfalfa sprouts. All other well-washed and cooked vegetables are safe to eat. So are the canned varieties. When choosing fruits, try to stay away from the raw, thin-skinned kinds such as apples, pears, or grapes. Instead, opt for fruits that have a thick skin that you can peel, such as bananas or oranges. Cooked or canned fruits are fine, too.

  • Meat, fish, and eggs.  Stay away from any raw or undercooked meat, fish, poultry, or eggs (no runny yolks). Always wash eggs before breaking. Also, avoid deli meats that are sliced fresh at the counter. Instead, buy lunch meat in prepackaged containers. 

  • Cheese. Avoid soft or moldy cheeses such as blue cheese, feta, brie, and Mexican-style queso blanco, as well as freshly sliced deli cheese of any kind. Opt for harder cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan.

  • Bread and baked goods. It's best to avoid breads, muffins, cakes, rolls, and donuts sold in self-serve bins. Instead, try prepackaged versions of these foods. Or make your own.

Don't Forget the Big Picture

When planning your diet, remember to include a wide variety of nutritious foods. And eat enough calories to stay healthy. By taking steps to avoid foods likely to be higher in bacteria whenever possible and eating a well-rounded diet, you are helping take control of your long-term health and well-being.

 Key Takeaways

  • People with neutropenia may benefit from a low-microbial diet. It can potentially reduce the risk for infection.

  • Properly prepare foods to avoid illness. Cook foods thoroughly and keep raw meat or poultry separate from other foods.

  • Avoid eating foods that are more susceptible to bacteria, such as raw fish, unpasteurized milk, and soft or moldy cheeses.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 5
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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