Nutrition and HIV: What to Eat and Important Food Safety Tips

The foods you eat can benefit your overall health and your immune system. Here is what you need to know.

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Being diagnosed with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a life-changing event. While the diagnosis can come with negative feelings of guilt and regret, people with HIV are encouraged to look at it in a positive light, as an opportunity to put a greater focus on their health. While there is no cure for HIV, there are effective treatments that enable people with HIV to live long, healthy lives.

In addition to starting and staying on treatment, people with HIV are advised to adopt a healthy lifestyle. This can help keep the immune system strong, and help prevent health issues such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Here, we will look at one of the best things a person can do for their overall health and their immune system—eating well and following a balanced diet.

How HIV impacts nutrition
There is no special diet that people with HIV are advised to follow, but anyone living with HIV should speak to their healthcare provider about their particular nutritional needs. Some questions and topics you may want to discuss include:

  • Am I at a healthy bodyweight? Some people may be overweight, and their health benefit from losing weight. Other people may be underweight as a result of HIV infection, and will benefit from achieving a healthy weight.
  • Any special nutritional needs. Certain people may have higher requirements for certain nutrients, depending on age, other health conditions (such as diabetes), nutrient deficiencies, (such as iron deficiency anemia), or food intolerances (such as lactose or gluten intolerances). Certain treatment regimens for HIV may also require changes to your diet.
  • Any difficulty eating. Tell your healthcare provider if you are experiencing stomach upset, loss of appetite, or problems swallowing. HIV can impact the way the body digests food, and HIV medications can cause side effects that impact your ability to eat and digest food. (Even when experiencing side effects, never stop a medication regimen unless directed to by a healthcare provider.)

People living with HIV may want to consider working with a nutritionist or dietitian.

What to eat
The guidelines for healthy eating are relatively simple. Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains. Take care to limit processed foods, unhealthy fats, and foods high in sodium and sugar. Pay attention to your caloric intake. If you have any questions about certain foods or what your caloric intake should be, these are topics to discuss with your healthcare provider.

The nutritional recommendations are the same for both people with HIV and people without (aside from any special requirements). An excellent resource for learning more about nutrition is the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” published by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Food safety
People with HIV are also advised to pay attention to food safety, as a weakened immune system can make a person more susceptible to food-borne illnesses. Food safety includes:

  • Avoiding raw eggs, undercooked meat, and unpasteurized milks and juices.
  • Keeping hands, cooking utensils, and countertops clean.
  • Storing and preparing raw meat, seafood, and eggs separate from other foods.
  • Cooking foods to the recommended internal temperature.
  • Chilling and storing foods at the recommended temperature.

The “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” mentioned in the section above, also includes detailed information on food safety.

In addition to eating well, it is important to look after the other aspects of your health. This includes getting regular exercise, getting enough sleep, taking precautions to prevent HIV transmission to others, quitting smoking, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and paying attention to your mental health.

Sources:
Alex Garner. "6 Positive Life Changes That Come With HIV." POZ, July 8, 2015.
Avert. "Taking Care of Yourself When Living With HIV."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Can my HIV or my HIV treatment affect my diet and nutrition?"
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services AIDSinfo. "HIV and Nutrition and Food Safety."
Better Health Channel. "Food and your life stages."
Virtual Medical Centre. "Nutrition for Medical Conditions."
POZ. "HIV and Nutrition."
Medical News Today. "What is it like to live with HIV?"
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. "Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

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