What I’ve Learned About Protein and Sickle Cell Disease

by Somi Igbene, PhD, ANutr | 


Nutrition is the least explored area of sickle cell management, but many interesting research studies provide insight into its benefits in reducing sickle cell severity. So far, I’ve learned that people with sickle cell disease are prone to nutrient deficiencies and need more energy (calories) than a person without the disease. During this sickle cell awareness month and beyond, I’d like to share what I’ve learned in the hopes that it will benefit someone else.

Protein is the first nutrient I’d like to introduce.

Beyond strong muscles, we all need protein to make hormones, immune cells, antibodies, and enzymes. We also need it to maintain bone health, and in some cases, provide energy. It turns out that people with sickle cell have a higher metabolic rate and therefore need more protein than those without the disease.

In people who don’t have sickle cell disease, red blood cells have a lifespan of 100-120 days. This is shortened to 8-25 days for those with sickle cell disease. This means that the bone marrow is constantly under pressure to churn out new red blood cells. This process needs plenty of energy, and since blood cells are made of protein, a person with sickle cell needs more protein.

Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Humans need 20 amino acids to stay healthy. Our bodies can make 11 of them — the nonessential amino acids — as long as we eat enough food. But we can only get the other nine from our diet. Those nine amino acids are called essential amino acids.

Protein is rich in animal foods, including chicken, beef, eggs, and fish, but also in plant foods such as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. The proteins in animal foods are of a higher quality than those in plant foods because our bodies can absorb them more easily. They also provide all the essential amino acids in the correct quantities we need them.

Even though plant foods don’t contain essential amino acids in the correct proportions, they are not inferior and are still necessary for a healthy diet. Besides, plant foods provide several antioxidants (compounds that fight disease-causing free radicals), fiber, and other plant-specific nutrients crucial for health.

You can get enough essential amino acids from plant foods. Some foods are higher in one essential amino acid than others. For example, rice is higher in the essential amino acid methionine but deficient in lysine, another essential amino acid. Beans contain lysine but are lacking in methionine. So, by eating rice and beans, for example, you can get enough of both lysine and methionine.

Unfortunately, there are no guidelines that specify the amount of protein people with sickle cell should eat daily. So, while I don’t have much to share in that area, it may be worth speaking with a dietitian or a certified nutritionist for tailored advice.

My biggest takeaway from the research I’ve done so far is that protein is crucial, and it is important to eat more than the recommended amount for healthy people. It is also vital to eat quality proteins, as they provide all of the essential amino acids you need, and your body can digest and absorb them more easily.