The Role of Diet in Managing HIV

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Eat right, feel better. That’s a pretty good way to sum up one of the most important reasons to eat a healthy diet. Eating well can certainly contribute to a better quality of life.

If you make good nutrition a priority, you’ll also strengthen your immune system. You’ll have the energy and the nutrients that your body needs to continue fighting your human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and any other infections that might come your way. You’ll be better prepared to manage your HIV symptoms and cope with any side effects of your medications. All in all, your diet can definitely help you manage your HIV and live a healthier life.

How to Avoid Losing Weight

Many people fret about how to shed a few pounds to reduce their risk of weight-related problems.

But for many people with HIV, especially those with advanced HIV disease or high viral loads, being underweight is a more common problem. They tend to lose their appetites when they’re sick, which makes it even harder to keep weight on.

Unfortunately, losing weight can put your health at additional risk if you’re already underweight or close to it. You might have a harder time fending off infections or recovering after being ill. A few strategies for keeping the weight on:

  • Boost your overall calorie intake. Look for ways to add foods with extra carbohydrates and fat to your diet. For carbs, think starchy foods like breads, pastas and potatoes. For fats, consider avocados, olives, cheese, sour cream, and peanut butter.

  • Eat more protein. Protein helps you build and maintain muscle strength, as well as your immune system. Think: meat, beans, dairy products, fish and nuts. Easy protein boosts include a hard-boiled egg, a can of tuna fish, or a container of yogurt.  You might even consider using dried milk or egg white powder as an additional ingredient in casseroles and milkshakes..

  • Eat smaller amounts of food more often. You don’t have to consume all your calories in one, two, or even three meals. You can snack or graze between meals.

How to Ease Symptoms and Side Effects

If you’re taking medication to keep your HIV at bay, you’re familiar with the various common side effects, like nausea and other gastrointestinal symptoms. You may have to alter what you eat—and how you eat it—to cope with some of the unpleasantness.

  • Manage nausea. Nothing is quite as effective at ruining your appetite as nausea. Try eating small snacks regularly, or eating relatively bland food like applesauce, toast and bananas. Avoid fatty, greasy and spicy foods.

  • Deal with diarrhea. Diarrhea can dehydrate you, which can make you feel even worse. You’ll need to boost your fluid intake to replenish what you’re losing.

  • Cope with mouth and swallowing problems. Mouth sores and painful ulcers are a common side effect of HIV infection. Hard, crunchy foods like raw veggies are not your best bet when you’re struggling with them. Opt for cooked veggies and soft fruit and other foods instead. Avoid spicy foods and citrus foods that are high in acid, which can further irritate your mouth.

How to Be Safe

With a weakened immune system, you’ll need to pay close attention to food safety. It’s possible to get sick from drinking contaminated water or eating food that contains bacteria that can make you sick. Be more vigilant and reduce your risk.  

  • Wash up. When cooking and preparing foods, wash your hands, utensils, cutting boards, and countertops regularly with soap and water if they come into contact with raw meat or other uncooked foods like eggs.

  • Avoid raw or undercooked meats and eggs. Cook your meat, poultry and eggs thoroughly. Watch out for foods that might contain raw eggs, like Caesar salad dressing and raw cookie dough.

  • Reheat deli meats and hot dogs. If those foods contain any Listeria monocytogene bacteria, the heat can kill it off and reduce your risk of contracting the serious bacterial infection known as listeriosis.

  • Choose pasteurized drinks and foods. The pasteurization process kills off potentially harmful bacteria.

  • Talk to your doctor before you travel. Certain developing countries are known for a higher risk for food-borne and water-borne illnesses, so talk to your doctor if you’re planning a trip.

Other Good Healthy Eating Tips

  • Get the right vitamins and minerals. Start by eating a well-balanced diet. But that may not be enough. Your body may not absorb some vitamins and minerals, such as zinc and B12, very well, so your doctor may advise taking a supplement. Some are easier to tolerate than others, so be sure to consult your doctor before taking anything on your own.

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated is good advice for just about everyone. The specific amount of liquid you need to consume may vary, depending on the medications you’re taking and any symptoms you may be experiencing.

If you are having trouble balancing all your nutritional needs, be sure to speak up. Your doctor can guide you to make the best possible decisions. A registered dietitian may also be able to help. 

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 22

  1. Diet and Exercise. UC San Diego Health.

  2. Diet and Nutrition. HIV Insite. University of California, San Francisco.

  3. HIV and AIDS. American Academy of Family Physicians.

  4. Nutrition and Food Safety. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  5. Nutrition Tips to Keep the Immune System Strong for People with HIV-AIDS. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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