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Nutrition and HIV

August 2013

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Nutrition and HIV

Good nutrition is very important for long-term health and survival. Studies have found that people living with HIV (HIV+) who have a healthy diet and good nutritional status can better tolerate HIV drugs, maintain weight and muscle mass more easily, and feel better overall.

Nutrients are things like fats, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and other important chemicals. You need proper levels of different nutrients in order to build and repair cells, keep hormones regulated, fight infection, and maintain energy levels. For the most part, we can not make nutrients. We get what we need from food and (when that is not possible) dietary supplements.

Good nutrition depends on many things, including:

  • What you eat (how much, what type of food, etc.)
  • How you digest and absorb nutrients
  • How different parts of your body use these nutrients

HIV-related changes in any of these factors can affect your nutritional status. Over time, this can lead to a variety of nutritional problems, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Muscle wasting (loss of muscle)
  • High levels of fats and sugars in the blood
  • Not enough vitamins and minerals

Many of these HIV-related problems can be avoided, or partially managed, by eating the right foods.

How Is Nutrition Measured?

Nutritional status can be assessed in many ways, including:

  • Weight and other measurements of body fat and muscle mass
  • Hemoglobin or hematocrit counts, which measure iron in the blood
  • Other blood tests to check levels of key fats (cholesterol and triglycerides), proteins (such as albumin), vitamins (B-12, Vitamin D), and minerals (sodium, potassium)

Diet and HIV

A healthy diet is a key part of any HIV treatment plan. A diet is simply any food and drink that you consume regularly. Your diet should give you the nutrients you need to:

  • Fight weight and muscle loss
  • Keep energy levels high
  • Help you get what you need from medications you take
  • Minimize the negative impact of HIV drugs

What kind of diet you should follow depends on your weight and your nutritional status (cholesterol, blood sugar, vitamin levels, etc). A nutritionist or registered dietician can help figure out what type of diet makes the most sense for you. AIDS service organizations and healthcare clinics sometimes have nutritionists on staff.

HIV+ Women and Nutrition

Nutritional guidelines such as the US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) are set by the government to let people know how much of each nutrient they need each day to maintain good health. However, the RDA does not take into account that HIV infection increases these needs. One study showed that HIV+ people needed between six and 25 times the RDA of some nutrients.

Due to dieting (restrictive eating), eating unhealthy foods, lack of time, and other pressures, half of all women in the US do not eat what they need to meet even the basic RDA requirements for many nutrients. This puts women, especially HIV+ women, at particular risk for not getting enough nutrients to maintain their health.

However, this does not mean that HIV+ women are necessarily underweight. In fact, in some resource-rich countries like the US, more women living with HIV are overweight or obese than women in the general population. Weight gain is a common side effect of some HIV drugs. Although HIV drugs greatly reduce AIDS-related illnesses and help people live longer, healthier lives, recent research shows that weight gain associated with HIV drugs can increase a woman's risk of diabetes. Since being obese can increase the chances of getting conditions already common in many HIV+ people (e.g., heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol), it is important to maintain a healthy weight.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.
See Also
An Introduction to Dietary Supplements for People Living With HIV/AIDS
Ask a Question About Diet or Nutrition at's "Ask the Experts" Forums
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