Food safety is important for everyone, but when you are living with cancer, it is even more important.
Some treatments may leave you with a low white blood cell count and weakened immune system (neutropenia), which makes it harder to fight off infections. Food contamination from bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi or mould can lead to food poisoning and potentially serious complications for people with a weakened immune system. It is important that you prepare, store and eat foods that reduce your risk of foodborne illness. This is often called a neutropenic diet.
What is a neutropenic diet?
Following a neutropenic diet or eating plan involves practicing excellent food hygiene, following food safety guidelines and avoiding high risk foods. This can help you reduce your risk of becoming sick from food contamination.
Reducing your risk
There are three key elements to following a neutropenic diet: The way you select, transport, prepare, cook and store food can reduce your risk of food poisoning. Key things to remember are:
- Make sure you are buying from a shop that looks clean and where staff use gloves and separate tongs when handling food
- Choose fruit and vegetables that look unbruised, fresh and whole
- Try to avoid pre-cut fruit and vegetables, especially melons and pumpkin
- Make sure frozen vegetables are not all frozen solid together, as this could indicate they had previously begun to thaw
- Only buy hot food that is steaming hot
- Check use-by dates and labels
- Avoid cans and packets with dents, bulges, cracks or tears
- Check eggs for cracks and make sure they are clean
- Keep hot and cold foods separate in insulated bags and only buy them at the end of your shopping trip
- Keep meats separate and wrap in a plastic bag
- Take shopping home quickly and store it immediately
- Wash your hand thoroughly with soap and water before and after preparing food
- Rinse fruit and vegetables under running water and dry with a clean tea towel or paper towel. You may also want to pre-soak in a mixture of water and some bicarbonate of soda to remove pesticide residue
- Use separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables and rinse knives under running water after you cut each item
- Don’t rinse or wash eggs, raw meat or poultry
- Invest in a cooking thermometer. As a rough guide, most food should be cooked to at least 75°C. This means that red meat will be medium
- Make sure eggs are cooked through and the yolk is set
- If you use a microwave, make sure all food is cooked evenly. If food is not in evenly sliced pieces, put larger items on the outside edge, cover the container, rotate and stir the food regularly while cooking and let it sit for at least a minute after it has finished
- Once steam has stopped rising, cover your food and put it in the fridge or freezer immediately
- Store cooked food on a different shelf to raw food, especially meat, poultry and fish. These should always be stored on the bottom shelf to prevent cross-contamination from juices
- The temperature of your fridge should be kept at below 4°C and your freezer below 0°C
- Thaw any frozen food overnight in the fridge, rather than on the bench and cook or heat it as soon as it thaws
- Reheat food to at least 75°C or until it is boiling, if liquid
- If using a microwave to reheat food, cover the container, rotate and stir the food regularly while cooking and let it sit for at least a minute after it has finished before checking the temperature
- Eat leftovers from the fridge within two to three days and frozen leftovers within three months
Download our Food Safety infographic and put it on your fridge as a handy reference.
Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.