Eating a balanced diet rich in zinc, folate, and fluids may help to prevent complications associated with sickle cell disease (SCD).

Healthcare professionals use the term SCD to refer to a group of inherited disorders that affect a protein in red blood cells. Doctors call this protein hemoglobin.

Usually, red blood cells are disc-shaped and flexible enough to transport oxygen through the blood vessels. In people with SCD, red blood cells have the shape of a crescent or sickle. These cells can block blood flow since they are fragile and cannot easily move or bend. Lack of blood flow through the body can cause a range of health issues.

SCD affects over 100,000 people in the United States and over 20 million globally. SCD is particularly common among Black and Hispanic American people.

This article explores SCD and diet. It also covers health disparities and when to speak with a doctor.

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People with SCD often have low levels of essential nutrient intake, including protein, minerals, and vitamins as a result of their condition. Socioeconomic factors may affect a person’s ability to access healthy food sources.

For example, 2020 research indicates that preschool children living with SCD from low socioeconomic backgrounds in areas where there is less access to healthy food are particularly vulnerable to the effects of malnutrition. Food insecurity is a key driver of overall cognitive development and performance in school-aged children.

A person with SCD may also experience other barriers when seeking treatment for their condition due to stigma, discrimination, and unconscious bias within the healthcare system. In some cases, a social worker or case manager may help people with SCD self-advocate and gain access to appropriate treatment.

Learn more about social determinants of health.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) 2020–2025 recommend people eat a healthy, balanced diet to help maintain good health and reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.

A high calorie, nutrient-dense, balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium may also benefit people with SCD. The table below offers examples of foods a person may include in a diet for SCD based on the DGA:

Fruitsavocados, pears, blueberries, apricots, bananas, prunes, apples, dates, cucumber, raisins, and melons, such as honeydew and watermelon
Vegetablesasparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, green beans, cauliflower, celery, turnips, zucchini, spinach, squash, bell peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, peas, potatoes, radishes, and beans
Whole grainsoats, rice, quinoa, barley, and brown rice
Healthy proteineggs, nuts, fish, lean meat, and poultry
Dairy products or dairy alternativeslow fat milk, yogurt, soy milk, and cottage cheese

A 2021 study found that addressing the nutritional deficiencies associated with SCD may help reduce the severity of SCD symptoms and improve a person’s quality of life.

People with SCD can speak with a healthcare professional for further advice on an individual basis.

Zinc is a mineral crucial for several bodily functions, including growth and immune system function.

Children with SCD have a high risk of zinc deficiency. This may be due to chelation therapy — a treatment healthcare professionals may use to prevent iron overload in people with SCD who receive regular blood transfusions.

Healthcare professionals may recommend children with SCD take zinc supplements to enhance growth and reduce the risk of bacterial infections, lack of blood flow to certain areas of the body, and hospitalizations.

Similarly, incorporating zinc into a diet by eating foods rich in zinc may help meet the body’s demands. Some good sources of zinc include:

  • nuts
  • fish
  • meat
  • pulses, such as beans and lentils
  • dairy products
  • whole grains

Folate is a B vitamin essential for producing and storing red blood cells. Since it is naturally occurring, people can obtain it from certain foods.

In people with SCD, red blood cells break down faster than in those without SCD. Folate may help replace red blood cells.

Additionally, some researchers hypothesize that people with SCD are at an increased risk for folate deficiency because their bodies produce more red blood cells than usual. However, the same researchers note that further research into the benefits and risks of folate supplementation in people with SCD is necessary.

Some rich sources of folate include:

Foods fortified with folate may include:

  • cereals
  • rice
  • bread
  • pasta
  • flour
  • cornmeal

People with SCD are at increased risk of dehydration due to multiple factors, including kidney problems such as hyposthenuria, which is an inability to concentrate urine resulting in less reabsorption of water into the body.

The National Health Service in the United Kingdom notes that drinking plenty of fluids, such as water, may help reduce the risk of dehydration, which may increase the risk of a sickle cell pain crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people with SCD drink 8–10 glasses of water per day.

Other fluids may include:

  • flavored water
  • milk
  • fruit juice

People with SCD may experience several different symptoms and complications due to the complexity of the condition.

People should speak with a doctor if symptoms worsen or they notice a change in their condition. A healthcare professional can evaluate a person’s symptoms and recommend the best treatment for them.

Individuals should also follow a doctor’s guidance on diet and supplements and consult them before using supplements or making any dietary changes.

SCD is a genetic blood disorder affecting hemoglobin in red blood cells.

The DGA recommends a healthy, balanced diet for everyone, including people with SCD. Medical experts also advise that people with SCD eat diets rich in zinc, folate, and plenty of fluids to improve symptoms, prevent dehydration, and replenish nutrients that the body uses.

A person living with SCD can speak with healthcare professional for further guidance about diet and supplements.