HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. If a person does not receive treatment for HIV, they may develop AIDS. While the treatment for HIV is effective, people with HIV or AIDS can benefit from a healthy diet. A balanced eating plan can also help them cope with the symptoms of their condition and the medication side effects.

Eating foods rich in vitamins and minerals can be beneficial for people living with HIV or AIDS. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good sources of nutrients.

Due to possible impaired immunity, some individuals with HIV or AIDS should follow extra precautions to avoid getting foodborne infections. This includes measures such as avoiding eating raw fish and undercooked eggs.

This article discusses the importance of nutrition and food safety for people living with HIV or AIDS. It also lists the foods to include and avoid and offers tips on how to manage eating-related problems people with HIV or AIDS may have.

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Good nutrition is beneficial for everyone, but it is especially important for people living with HIV or AIDS, who have various health challenges. One of these can be impaired immunity.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the immune system of a person with HIV may need to work harder to fight infections, which requires more energy. For this reason, they may need to eat more food.

HIV and AIDS can also cause weight loss. This is a common problem for people whose HIV has advanced. This is because the infection can reduce appetite and make a person too tired to eat.

Difficulty eating that results in weight loss may also occur due to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and mouth sores.

Read more about HIV symptoms here.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), eating a nutritious diet has various benefits for people with HIV or AIDS, including:

  • boosting resistance to infections and complications
  • decreasing side effects of medications
  • alleviating HIV symptoms
  • improving a person’s quality of life

The reduced immunity that HIV and AIDS can cause may make a person more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.

Germs in food and water may cause infections that last longer and are more serious in a person with impaired immunity.

Therefore, in addition to eating nutritiously, anyone with impaired immunity may wish to take extra precautions when cooking and eating.

The VA offers the following recommendations:

  • Wash the hands with soap and water before and after preparing food and eating.
  • Keep countertops and utensils clean.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables with clean water.
  • Avoid eating packaged foods if the expiration date has passed.
  • Instead of thawing food at room temperature, thaw it in the microwave or refrigerator.
  • Cook fish, poultry, and meat until well done, which is 165–212°F (74–100°C). Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature.
  • Do not eat sushi or unpasteurized dairy products.
  • Do not eat eggs that are not thoroughly cooked, such as those that are fried over easy or soft-boiled.
  • Avoid eating leftovers that are more than 3 days old.

Water may also contain bacteria, viruses, and parasites. To avoid becoming ill from contaminated water, a person may wish to buy a water filter to install in their home.

A person living with HIV or AIDS and impaired immunity may also consider using only boiled water for cooking and drinking.

Food hygiene tips

The AND recommends eating foods rich in vitamins and minerals, as the body needs these for immunity, healthy blood cells, and other aspects of wellness.

Such foods include:

In addition, people with HIV and impaired immunity should drink 8–10 glasses of water or other fluids per day, as it:

  • reduces tiredness
  • helps prevent dehydration
  • decreases medication side effects
  • helps flush out the medications the body has used

Learn about 15 benefits of drinking water here.

The VA recommends the following for a person with HIV:

  • Drink plenty of water: This acts as a medium in which bodily processes occur.
  • Eat vitamins and minerals: These regulate bodily processes. Nutrients that can help boost the immune system include:
  • Add proteins: A person can avoid weight loss by eating:
    • nut butter on toast, crackers, fruit, or vegetables
    • cottage cheese on fruit and tomatoes
    • canned tuna with casseroles and salads
    • chopped meats with soups, salads, and sauces
    • shredded cheese on top of sauces, soups, omelets, and baked potatoes and other vegetables
    • yogurt with cereal or fruit
    • dried milk powder or egg white powder with scrambled eggs, casseroles, and milkshakes
    • hard-boiled eggs in salads
    • beans and legumes
  • Add calories: People can avoid weight loss by adding calories in the form of:
    • fats, in moderate amounts, such as:
    • starches, including:
    • simple sugars, such as:
      • fresh or dried fruits
      • jelly, honey, and maple syrup
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Foods and beverages people with HIV or AIDS and impaired immunity should avoid include:

  • Salt: Some of the foods that contain highest amounts of sodium include cold cuts, soups, bread, pizza, and sandwiches.
  • Sugar: This includes sugary beverages and desserts, such as ice cream, cake, cookies, pies, and pastries.
  • Unhealthy fat: This includes saturated fats, which are present in fatty cuts of meat and palm oil. A person should also avoid trans fats, which are present in processed foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Alcohol: This includes beer, wine, and spirits, such as vodka and rum. Consuming too much alcohol can weaken the immune system. This in turn can result in more difficulty fighting infections and a higher likelihood of experiencing side effects from medications.

The VA offers advice on managing various eating problems a person with HIV or AIDS may experience.

Increasing appetite

A person can try to increase their appetite by doing the following:

  • Engage in gentle exercise, such as walking.
  • Avoid consuming too much liquids before or during meals, as this promotes a feeling of fullness.
  • Instead of eating three larger meals per day, eat smaller, more frequent meals.
  • Choose favorite foods and eat them in a pleasant place.

Learn about appetite stimulants here.

Managing nausea

To manage nausea, a person can take the following steps:

  • Do not consume liquids with meals.
  • Drink tea made with ginger root, which is a natural remedy for nausea.
  • Avoid strong-smelling foods, as well as fatty, spicy, and very sweet foods.
  • Eat a small snack every 1–2 hours.

Learn about home remedies for nausea here.

Managing diarrhea

People can try to manage diarrhea in the following ways:

  • Try the BRAT diet, where BRAT stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.
  • Avoid milk and dairy products.
  • Limit consumption of sodas and other sugary beverages.
  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids to stay hydrated.

Learn about home remedies for diarrhea here.

Managing difficulty swallowing

To manage difficulty swallowing, individuals can take the following steps:

  • Avoid eating crunchy or hard foods, such as raw vegetables.
  • Instead of consuming foods and beverages hot, consume them cold or at room temperature.
  • Try eating soft foods, such as oatmeal, mashed potatoes, yogurt, and canned fruits.
  • Avoid acidic foods, such as oranges and tomatoes.

Preventing weight loss

To prevent weight loss, a person should consume more of the following:

  • Protein: Ideas for adding protein to meals include spreading nut butter on toast and eating yogurt with fruit.
  • Calories: Ways to increase caloric intake involve eating more fats, such as avocados, as well as more carbohydrates, such as fruit or bread.

Learn about which foods can help a person gain weight safely here.

If a person has difficulty eating, they should consult a registered dietitian. They can ask a doctor for a referral to one who has experience with people living with HIV or AIDS.

Not everyone with HIV has impaired immunity. People with the condition also do not always experience the same symptoms of the infection or the same side effects of medication. Also, some individuals with HIV may have other conditions that a balanced diet can help with.

A dietitian can tailor a diet to meet a person’s specific nutritional needs.

Learn more about the role of nutritionists and dietitians here.

If a person has HIV or AIDS and impaired immunity, the right nutrition and diet can help their immune system fight infections.

Certain eating practices can also help manage an array of eating problems that people living with HIV or AIDS might experience, such as nausea and difficulty swallowing.

A balanced diet for people with HIV or AIDS involves fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low fat dairy foods. It also limits the intake of salty and sugary foods, along with foods that are high in saturated and trans fats.