HIV: Stay Health, Food Safety and Nutrition

In people with HIV, good nutrition supports overall health and helps maintain the immune system. Good nutrition also helps people with HIV maintain a healthy weight and absorb HIV medicines.

Food and water can be contaminated with germs that cause illnesses (called foodborne illnesses or food poisoning).

Because HIV damages the immune system, foodborne illnesses are likely to be more serious and last longer in people with HIV than in people with a healthy immune system.
Food safety is about how to select, handle, prepare, and store food to prevent foodborne illnesses. Following food safety guidelines reduces the risk of foodborne illnesses.

Why Nutrition and HIV/AIDS Are Linked

Why Nutrition and HIV/AIDS Are Linked

  • Improve your overall quality of life by providing nutrients your body needs.
  • Keep your immune system stronger so you can better fight disease.
  • Help manage HIV symptoms and complications.
  • Process medications and help manage their side effects.

nutrition important for people living with HIV

Good nutrition is about finding and maintaining a healthy eating style. Good nutrition supports overall health and helps maintain the immune system. It also helps people with HIV maintain a healthy weight and absorb HIV medicines.

HIV attacks and destroys the immune system, which makes it harder for the body to fight off infections. People with HIV take a combination of HIV medicines (called an HIV treatment regimen) every day. The medicines prevent HIV from destroying the immune system. A healthy diet also helps strengthen the immune system and keep people with HIV healthy.

to Know About Food Safety

Because HIV affects your immune system, you may be at greater risk for food-borne illness. So in addition to eating well, you need to eat safely. By following a few basic safety rules when you prepare and eat your meals, you can protect yourself from food-related illness:

  • Avoid eating raw eggs, meats, or seafood (including sushi and oysters/shellfish).
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
  • Use a separate cutting board for raw meats.
  • Wash hands, utensils, and cutting boards with soap and water after each use.
  • Water safety is extremely important, as water can carry a variety of parasites, bacteria, and viruses. To protect yourself against these infections, here are some helpful hints:
    • Do not drink water from lakes, ponds, rivers, or streams.
    • You may choose to use a store-bought water filter at home for your drinking water.
    • You can significantly reduce your risk of water-borne illness by using only boiled water for drinking and cooking.
    • When traveling abroad in areas where sanitation is poor or water safety is questionable, drink only bottled water and avoid ice or unpasteurized juices and drinks.

Stay Healthy if You Have HIV

If you have the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, you need to be especially vigilant about keeping your immune system strong. HIV kills important cells in the immune system called CD4 lymphocytes, or T cells. In people with HIV, the number of T cells can fall dangerously low, leading to a weakened immune system state called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Adhering to treatment for HIV is a must. In addition, you can start taking these steps to get in the best physical shape possible.

Eat Healthy Foods to Maintain Good Nutrition

A healthy diet can help keep your immune system strong. Foods such as fish, beans, and nuts contain protein, which can help you build muscle. Getting enough protein is especially important if you’re underweight, notes the UCSF Center for HIV Information, as are calories from carbohydrates and healthy fats. Consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables can provide essential vitamins and minerals and also keep you feeling full. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), maintaining a healthy weight with the right diet can also help you absorb HIV medications. People with a weakened immune system need to pay close attention to food safety too, in order to prevent foodborne infections that can be more difficult to fight off, says the HHS.

Avoid Drugs and Drink Alcohol in Moderation

If you have HIV, using drugs and drinking alcohol can compromise an already weakened immune system. The liver, in particular, which helps remove toxins from the body, can be damaged by alcohol and drug use, according to the HHS. Recreational drugs and drinking can also impair your judgment, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leading to risky behavior like engaging in unsafe sex and forgetting to take your HIV medications on time and as prescribed. Some recreational drugs can also interfere with or interact dangerously with the medications used to keep HIV in check. If you drink alcohol, advises the HHS, do so in moderation — this means one drink a day for women and no more than two for men.

Take Care of Your Teeth and Practice Good Oral Hygiene

People with HIV are at risk for tooth and mouth problems, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. When your immune system is compromised by HIV, conditions such as oral warts, fever blisters, thrush, and canker sores are more likely to develop and can be harder to fight. Many people with HIV/AIDS also experience dry mouth, which can increase the risk of cavities and make it difficult to chew and swallow normally. The American Dental Association recommends brushing and flossing regularly, and visiting the dentist at least every six months to prevent such problems.

Don’t Stress — or at Least Do What You Can to Lower Your Stress Levels

Reducing stress is an essential part of your treatment regimen, because the chronic stress of living with HIV by itself can take a big toll on your overall health and well-being. Research has shown a link between stress and reduced immune system function. Stress can also interfere with your appetite, sleep patterns, and other aspects of your daily life. Some great ways to manage stress include yoga, meditation, exercise, and counseling or therapy. To get the best results, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program.

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Try an Alternative Therapy Like Acupuncture to Alleviate Some Symptoms

Many people with HIV manage their symptoms and any side effects of medications with complementary and alternative medicine therapies. In particular, acupuncture, the practice of inserting very thin needles into specific points on the body, may alleviate certain types of chronic pain. While there haven’t been studies specifically demonstrating that acupuncture stimulates immune function in people with HIV, research has shown that acupuncture increases CD4 cells in people with cancer, according to CATIE, a Canadian resource for HIV information.

It’s important for your acupuncturist to use sterile, disposable needles. More information about the effects of acupuncture, as well as different approaches and resources for finding an acupuncturist, are available through the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Be Careful and Safe When Traveling Abroad

If you have HIV, it’s important to take extra precautions when traveling internationally. In particular, be especially careful about the food and water you consume. While foodborne illnesses can be unpleasant and even dangerous for people who are healthy and in good shape, they can cause severe complications and even death in people with HIV. The CDC notes that travel to developing countries may increase the risk of opportunistic infections. When you’re planning a trip, be sure to talk to your medical care team at least four to six weeks beforehand to get advice about vaccinations you might need, and stock up on extra supplies of your HIV medications. Review your health insurance policy to see what kind of coverage you have while traveling.

Keep an Eye on Your Skin and Take Any Changes Seriously

A severe skin infection that doesn’t clear up or respond to treatment can sometimes be a sign of something serious. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, people with weakened immune systems because of HIV often have simultaneous or persistent skin conditions — either because they’re more susceptible to certain infections or because of inflammation. Rashes are among the most common side effects of HIV medications, says the HHS. So watch your skin carefully for changes, and be sure to have skin problems examined promptly.

Be Sure to See Your Gynecologist Regularly

HIV raises a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, so HIV-positive women should be particularly careful about getting regular Pap smears. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health suggests that women with HIV get an initial Pap smear at the time of HIV diagnosis and another one year later, though some experts recommend a second Pap test within six months of the initial test. Because women with HIV are also more likely to develop recurrent and more aggressive forms of yeast infections and pelvic inflammatory disease, the Office on Women’s Health notes, be sure to tell your doctor about any symptoms of these conditions right away.

Be Consistent and Always Take Your Medication on Time

Skipping doses of medication or not taking HIV medication on time as prescribed allows HIV to multiply, and higher levels of HIV in your body (what’s called viral load) further compromise your immune system. Adherence to antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help you achieve and keep an undetectable viral load, according to the HHS. When you don’t adhere to your treatment, the virus also has the opportunity to become resistant to your HIV medication.

Boost Your Knowledge of HIV

Take control of your health and future by learning as much as you can about HIV and AIDS. Start by talking to your doctor. Check the Everyday Health HIV/AIDS Center, and government websites such as the CDC and the AIDSinfo site from the HHS. Local and online support groups can also be a great resource to get information directly from other people with HIV or AIDS.

Points to remember

You may feel that many things are out of your control if you have HIV. But you can control what you eat and drink, and how much. Good nutrition is an important part of your plan to stay well.

  • Eating right can make your body and your immune system stronger.
  • If you are underweight or chronically ill, you may need to eat more. Be sure to eat a diet that is high in proteins and calories.
  • If you are overweight, you may need to lose some weight to be healthier.
  • Exercise can stimulate your appetite and make you feel like eating more.
  • Drink plenty of liquids to help your body deal with any medications you are taking. If you are vomiting or have diarrhea, you will need to drink more than usual.
  • Practice food safety. Keep your kitchen clean, wash foods, and be careful about food preparation and storage.
  • You can use certain foods and beverages to help you deal with symptoms and side effects.
  • Before taking vitamin and mineral supplements, check with your VA provider.

Remember, there is no one “right” way to eat. Eating well means getting the right amount of nutrients for your particular needs. Your VA provider can refer you to a dietitian or nutritionist who can help design a good diet for you.

Bottom Line

Enjoying the 15 immune-boosting foods covered in this article may strengthen people’s immune system and improve their ability to fight off infections.

That said, it is important to remember that the immune system is complex. Eating a healthful, balanced diet is just one way to support immune health.

It is also essential to be mindful of the other lifestyle factors that may affect immune system health, such as exercising and not smoking.

Anyone who gets frequent colds or other illnesses and is concerned about their immune system should speak to a doctor.

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