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What to Eat When You Have HIV

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If you have HIV, what sort of diet should you eat? If you're getting treatment and not having complications, the answer's simple: Eat the same healthy diet that everyone should be eating.

"We don’t have evidence that people do better with a specific HIV diet, or have special nutritional requirements just because they have HIV," says Christine A. Wanke, MD, director of the nutrition and infection unit at Tufts University School of Medicine.

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But she says that while there's no specific HIV diet, sticking to a healthy eating plan is key, even if you're not having symptoms now. If you have HIV, a good diet will help you feel better, avoid complications, and stay healthy.

10 Guidelines to Follow

The general principles of healthy eating are simple:

  1. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables (5 to 6 servings a day).
  2. Favor whole grains, which provide fiber and healthy nutrients.
  3. Choose lean proteins, such as fish, chicken, beans, legumes, and low-fat dairy.
  4. Select healthier fats, in moderate servings, like olive oil and nuts.
  5. Limit sugar, sweets, and saturated fats.
  6. Skip trans fats totally.
  7. Avoid fad diets. "We do see people who use fad diets," Wanke says. However, none has been tested or shown to have a benefit for people with HIV. Extreme diets that cut out whole food groups or advise taking huge doses of vitamins or supplements may be dangerous.
  8. Eat for your general health, not just HIV. Don't focus only on a special immunity-boosting diet if it could hurt your all-around health. People with HIV may be at higher risk for heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and other conditions, but a good overall diet can help prevent them.
  9. Keep it simple. The more complex a diet becomes, the more difficult it is to follow. Some people try to measure their intake of protein and fat down to the ounce. But unless there's a specific medical reason, most people don't need to worry about that level of detail, says Kimberly Dong, RD, a dietitian at Tufts University School of Medicine.
  10. Get help if you have problems. A normal healthy diet is good for most people with HIV. But if you're having problems -- like a loss of appetite, nausea, or unwanted weight loss -- see your doctor. Don't try to deal with it on your own. Your doctor can help treat both the underlying problem and the symptoms.

One way to remember the eating guidelines is the U.S. government's "MyPlate" recommendation: Make half your plate vegetables and fruits, and split the other half between grains and protein.

From Weight Loss to Weight Gain

Wasting (unwanted weight loss) used to be a common and serious result of HIV. Hoping to prevent it, some people with HIV would load up on calories and protein. They drank nutritional supplements and added cream to their cereal.

HIV-related weight loss still happens, especially in people with severe or untreated HIV, but it's less common now. A different weight problem has emerged.

"We're seeing a lot more people with HIV in our clinic who are overweight than underweight," Wanke says. "That was something we couldn't imagine in the 1980s or 1990s."

Lots of people in the U.S., including many with HIV, exercise too little, eat too much, and gain weight. But while excess weight poses health risks for everyone, people with HIV may be more likely to develop problems like heart disease and diabetes. That makes a healthy diet,  and keeping your weight under control, so important.

Reviewed on June 18, 2013

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