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Red blood cells

2-minute read

The main role of red blood cells is to carry oxygen around your body and to transport carbon dioxide to the lungs, from where it can be exhaled. A healthy diet containing essential minerals and vitamins will help your body produce enough red blood cells.

What are red blood cells?

The red blood cells are a very important part of your blood, along with white blood cells, platelets and plasma.

Red blood cells contain a protein called haemoglobin, which carries oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body. Haemoglobin is what makes your blood red.

Red blood cells also help remove waste products from your body, such as carbon dioxide.

Diet and red blood cells

A healthy diet containing essential minerals and vitamins will help your body produce enough red blood cells.

Iron is an essential mineral that you get from food. The main role of iron in your body is to help your red blood cells function normally. Iron deficiency is common.

Read more about foods that are rich in iron. If you are a vegetarian, you need to be careful to have enough iron in your diet.

Vitamin B also plays an important role with your red blood cells. B vitamins are found in animal-based foods, leafy green vegetables, beans and peas, and cereals and breads that have B vitamins added to them.

What are problems involving red blood cells?

It’s fairly common for people to develop anaemia, which occurs when you do not have enough red blood cells. Anaemia can be caused by:

  • blood loss, such as from injuries, operations, stomach or colon bleeding, heavy periods and childbirth
  • certain inherited diseases
  • side effects of medication
  • lack of iron or vitamins in your diet
  • bone marrow disease
  • cancer and treatments, such as chemotherapy

If you have severe anaemia, you may need a blood transfusion. In some cases you can avoid a blood transfusion through 'patient blood management', a process that boosts and conserves your own blood. Discuss this with your doctor.

There can be problems with having too many red blood cells, too, although this is not as common. It can be caused by some heart conditions, lung conditions, kidney disease or dehydration.

A few genetic conditions, such as thalassaemia, affect your blood. People with thalassaemia do not produce enough healthy haemoglobin.

If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor.

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Last reviewed: June 2021

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