Nutrition for the Child with Sickle Cell Anemia

By Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD
Sickle Cell Nutrition

Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), also called Sickle Cell Anemia, is a genetic red blood cell disorder that causes blood cells to take on a sickle or crescent shape. In the U.S., SCD is most common among African Americans and Hispanic Americans. People with SCD often experience episodes of pain, fatigue and frequent infections. SCD is associated with low calcium intake, vitamin D deficiency and poor appetite. All of these can lead to delayed growth and development in children.

If your child gets enough calcium, keep up the good work! However, calcium alone is not enough. Calcium is effective at building strong bones only if your child also gets enough vitamin D. Emory University Associate Professor of Pediatrics Dr. Ify Osunkwo explains, "Many sickle cell disease patients are vitamin D deficient due to their darker skin, lack of dairy intake and limited sun exposure. If they drink milk, are out in the sun and open to eating dairy, they tend to fare better."

Osunkwo leads research on vitamin D deficiency in those with SCD and examines the resulting pain, poor bone density, fractures and muscle weakness. Her research shows that adequate vitamin D supplementation over just 6 months may lead to less pain. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach. She recommends patients work with their doctor to get the appropriate vitamin D dose for their body.

Calcium and vitamin D are important for your child's growth and development, but good overall nutrition is essential. Speak with your health-care specialist for a full assessment. Meanwhile, keep these tips in mind to maximize your child's nutrition:

  • Make good nutrition a family affair so your child doesn't feel punished when they're drinking milk and everyone else has soda.
  • Eat from a rainbow of fruits and vegetables paired with grains, proteins (such as eggs, fish, chicken, lean meat, beans or tofu), nuts and low-fat dairy.
  • Get plenty of calcium-rich foods such as low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt, and cheese, leafy green vegetables and calcium-fortified foods such as soymilk, orange juice and tofu
  • Provide healthy, high-calorie foods including dried fruit, nuts and nut butters, or smoothies if your child doesn't have much of an appetite.
  • Discuss vitamin D testing and supplementation with your health-care provider. While sun exposure, eggs, fortified milk and yogurt provide vitamin D, it is often difficult to replenish stored vitamin D with food alone.
  • Encourage plenty of water to prevent constipation.
  • Forgo sugar-sweetened drinks for milk or calcium-fortified orange juice, which provide better nutrition.

Understandably, it may be easier said than done. Pediatric Hematology Nutritionist, Michell Fullmer, RD, LDN, finds that one of the biggest challenges for families affected by SCD is making time to cook at home. "[Families] are faced with a child with a chronic illness, which makes it difficult to sit and prepare a healthy meal. And, when the child is in pain, they often don't feel like eating," Fullmer explains.

Work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to better understand your child's unique nutrition needs and identify quick and healthy meals that will work for the entire family.

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