Good nutrition plays an important role in maintaining your quality of life and supporting your health and well-being when you are living with HIV. Being well-nourished may help you better withstand opportunistic infections and disease progression, thanks to a strengthened immune system.
If you have already started your antiretroviral therapy (ART), you may have noticed weight gain, especially in the abdomen — a common side effect of ART. ART is essential to HIV treatment, but particularly older treatments could lead to side effects, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone loss, and kidney disorders. Healthy eating patterns, however, might help reduce the chances of these side effects, making your diet an important part of disease management.
Overall, a healthy, balanced diet that incorporates fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, and a variety of proteins can help support a healthy weight and reduce instances of illness or infection. An HIV-healthy diet should also be low in sodium, saturated and trans fats, and added sugars.
Eating well is often easier said than done, however. Healthy, whole foods may be hard to come by in some areas. Moreover, the expense of fresh foods may steer you toward processed foods instead. However, finding ways to make a healthy diet more accessible or affordable — such as choosing produce that’s in season — may help you bring these nourishing foods into your daily meals more often. Eating some whole foods is better than none, so start where you can.
Although many healthy-diet recommendations are typical for anyone, regardless of health conditions, there are a few considerations specific to the needs of those living with HIV. For example, people living with HIV are found to commonly be vitamin D-deficient. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased inflammation and negatively impacts bone health.
Other nutrients of interest, due to their potential role in immune function, include:
With all that in mind, here are recommendations for what to eat more of, what to limit, and what else to think about as you fill your plate. Remember to confer with your health care provider before starting a new diet or supplement.
Proteins serve many important functions, including providing you with energy. The proteins you consume contribute to cell growth, maintenance, and repair. They are also integral in transporting nutrients to different parts of your body and building a strong immune system via the production of antibodies. If we do not consume enough amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, we lose our ability to make the proteins that we need.
According to a 2019 study in the Journal of Nutrition, people living with HIV tend to consume less seafood and plant proteins and fewer beneficial fatty acids than people without HIV. It’s important to find ways to build protein into your diet. The goal is to consume at least 5 to 6.5 ounces of protein per day.
Lean cuts of meats are good choices for animal protein sources. Fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, and tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in managing inflammation and protecting against cardiovascular diseases.
Other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
These are great sources of protein that are high in minerals and vitamins and nearly free of saturated fat, as well as cholesterol.
Fruits and vegetables are sources of dietary fiber, which make you feel fuller and help you avoid overeating. Furthermore, fruits and vegetables provide minerals, such as magnesium and potassium, which are good for the management of blood pressure (a concern in people with HIV). They also contain antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamins E and C, which may have beneficial health effects.
Try to consume 1 to 2 cups of fruits and 1 to 3 cups of vegetables per day. It may sound like a lot, but try a few tips that may make it easier. When filling your plate, shoot to fill half of it with fruits, vegetables, or a combination of both. And when you can, make your plate as colorful as possible, incorporating all colors of the rainbow:
Whole grains contain dietary fiber, several B vitamins, and minerals, especially iron, magnesium, and selenium. Refined grains, on the other hand, (which include degermed cornmeal, white bread, white flour, and white rice) have been stripped of the healthy vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber in the bran and germ of the grain.
Whole grains also have a lower glycemic index than refined grains, which means that they prevent fluctuations in your blood sugar and insulin levels. With more stable blood sugar, you are likely to eat less and achieve a healthy weight.
It’s recommended to incorporate at least 3 to 8 ounces of whole grains in your meals every day. To eat more whole grains, choose:
If they’re available to you, experiment in your kitchen with other whole-grain options, including barley, buckwheat, bulgur (cracked wheat), or millet.
As part of a healthy diet with HIV, choose low-fat or nonfat dairy products, which have no or lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fats than the whole versions. Milk and yogurt have more potassium and less sodium than most cheeses, so they may be better options. Aim for 3 cups of low-fat or nonfat dairy products per day.
Some people are unable to eat dairy. If you have a milk allergy or sensitivity such as lactose intolerance, or if you have an interest in a plant-based diet, nondairy milk alternatives or lactase supplements may be options for you. Nondairy alternatives to cow’s milk include:
When considering nondairy milk, take note of the labels. Many are sweetened. It may be better to choose unsweetened versions of milk alternatives to avoid the added sugars. Also, some are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Lactase supplements come in pills or drops and are sometimes already incorporated into certain brands of milk.
An HIV-healthy diet should also be low in sodium, saturated and trans fats, and added sugars.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have other helpful tips on how to reduce your sodium intake.
Of all the dietary fat people consume, saturated fats and trans fats are the most highly correlated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, because both increase LDL (bad) cholesterol. Trans fats also reduce HDL (good) cholesterol.
Saturated fats are found in:
Trans fats are present in processed foods, such as:
Experts suggest limiting the calories from saturated fats to less than 10 percent of your total calories each day and limiting trans-fat consumption as much as possible.
Added sugars are syrups, sugars, or caloric sweeteners that are added to foods and beverages such as soft drinks and sweetened fruit juices. Added sugars do not include those carbohydrates naturally present in dairy and fruit or unsweetened fruit juice.
Limit your intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories. Some studies have shown that these sugars may depress your immune function and mood and increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
Drinking enough water is vital when you have HIV. Water transports nutrients to and from cells. Water has other benefits for those with HIV, as it:
Try to consume at least eight to 10 glasses of water (or other fluids including juices or soups) a day. Drink more if you’re physically active. If you are finding it hard to remember to consume water throughout the day, downloading a hydration app on your phone may help. It alerts you when you should be drinking more water and identifies the volume of water that you should consume daily based on your weight and gender.
To reduce your risk of foodborne illnesses, always follow food safety practices when preparing, serving, and storing foods.
You may also want to avoid certain supplements. Although some herbs and plant botanicals, such as milk thistle and red yeast rice, have been touted as beneficial, they may potentially interact with certain antiretroviral drugs. Therefore, always consult with your health care provider before supplementing with herbs.
Changing your diet can be a challenging undertaking. Finding the motivation to eat right when you have HIV is best done alongside others who understand the obstacles and rewards. Connect with otters who understand life with HIV through myHIVteam, the social network for people with HIV and their loved ones. Here, more than 29,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories.
Are you making changes to your diet for healthier living? What challenges have you faced, and what’s made it easier? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on myHIVteam.