For years, the neutropenic diet has been implemented by people to help them reduce consuming bacteria from foods. Although more research is still needed to support the use of the neutropenic diet, your doctor may still recommend it based on your individual health needs and goals.

This diet has been suggested for people living with cancer because they’re more prone to develop bacterial infections. It’s also been recommended to people with weakened immune systems — specifically those with neutropenia, whose bodies produce an inadequate amount of white blood cells (neutrophils).

Neutrophils are blood cells that help protect your body from infection. In lower amounts, your immune system weakens and your body is less able to defend itself against bacteria, viruses, and infections including:

Prior to starting the neutropenic diet, discuss your dietary changes and health needs with your doctor to prevent interfering with any treatment plans. In addition, there are some general tips you can pair with the neutropenic diet to safely handle food and to help prevent illness.

Some of these guidelines include:

  • Wash your hands before and after handling food. Also wash all surfaces and utensils.
  • Avoid raw foods, specifically meat and undercooked eggs. Cook all meats thoroughly.
  • Avoid salad bars.
  • Thoroughly wash fresh fruits and vegetables before eating or peeling. Cooked fruits and vegetables are okay to eat.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products.
  • Avoid well water if it hasn’t been filtered or boiled for at least one minute. Bottled water is fine if it’s been labeled as being distilled, filtered, or having used reverse osmosis.

Some foods you’re allowed to eat on the neutropenic diet include:

  • Dairy. All pasteurized milk and dairy products including cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and sour cream.
  • Starches. All breads, cooked pastas, chips, french toast, pancakes, cereal, cooked sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peas, whole grains, and fries.
  • Vegetables. All cooked or frozen vegetables.
  • Fruit. All canned and frozen fruit and fruit juices. Thoroughly washed and peeled thick-skinned fruits such as bananas, oranges, and grapefruit.
  • Protein. Thoroughly cooked (well-done) meats and canned meats. Hard-cooked or boiled eggs and pasteurized egg substitutes.
  • Beverages. All tap, bottled, or distilled water. Canned or bottled drinks, individually canned sodas, and instant or brewed tea and coffee.

Foods to avoid

Some foods you should eliminate while following the neutropenic diet:

  • Dairy. Unpasteurized milk. Unpasteurized yogurt or yogurt made with live or active cultures. Soft cheeses (Brie, feta, sharp cheddar), cheeses with mold (gorgonzola, blue cheese), aged cheeses, cheese with uncooked vegetables, and Mexican-style cheeses such as queso.
  • Raw starches. Bread with raw nuts, uncooked pasta, raw oats, and raw grains.
  • Vegetables. Raw vegetables, salads, uncooked herbs and spices, and fresh sauerkraut.
  • Fruit. Unwashed raw fruit, unpasteurized fruit juices, and dried fruits.
  • Protein. Raw or undercooked meat, deli meats, sushi, cold meat, and undercooked eggs with runny yolk.
  • Beverages. Sun tea, cold-brewed tea, eggnog made with raw eggs, fresh apple cider, and homemade lemonade.

Based on current findings, there’s not enough research to prove the neutropenic diet as an effective way to prevent infection. Neither the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) nor the Oncology Nursing Society Cancer Chemotherapy guidelines include the neutropenic diet as a recommendation.

One 2006 study examined the infection rate between two preventive diet plans. A group of 19 pediatric chemotherapy patients were either put on the neutropenic diet or an FDA-approved food safety guidelines diet. Results from this study were inconclusive, showing no statistically significant differences between the two test groups. Infection rates between those on the neutropenic diet and the FDA-approved diet were similar.

Also, there are no published guidelines on how to use this diet. Before recommending this diet as a treatment method, there needs to be more research to examine its effectiveness.

The neutropenic diet incorporates dietary changes to help prevent you from consuming harmful bacteria in foods and beverages. This diet is specifically meant for people with neutropenia, but is also an implemented diet for those with cancer and weakened immune systems.

Though some institutions incorporate this diet into medical treatment plans, more research is needed to demonstrate its effectiveness. Traditional treatment methods shouldn’t be ignored. Prior to participating in a new diet, discuss your options and risks with your doctor.