By Christy Wilson, RD
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first began using the term AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) in 1982, most people with the disease died within months of diagnosis. Medical care and nutrition therapy for those infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, was used to prevent suffering and relieve symptoms.
Today, HIV and AIDS are considered chronic, yet manageable, diseases thanks to three decades of advanced medical research and the breakthrough discovery of combination medication therapy HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy), which changed the model of HIV care. With proper medical care, maintaining a healthy body weight and eating a variety of nutritious foods, people living with HIV/AIDS can likely delay progression of the disease and expect to live a long, healthy life.
Supporting A Healthy Immune System
HIV is primarily known for suppressing the immune system by attacking a specific type of white blood cell known as CD4 or T-helper cells. The lower the count, the more vulnerable the body becomes to illness and infection. A major goal in HIV care is to restore and maintain healthy white blood cell levels, which can be achieved with proper medication, multivitamin supplementation and balanced nutrition.
Foods can work together with medications to support a strong immune system — particularly dark, deep and brightly colored fruits and vegetables. The array of pigments found in colorful foods like tomatoes, blueberries, broccoli and carrots represent phytochemicals and antioxidants that may strengthen the body’s ability to defend itself against infections and other chronic illnesses.
Protein is part of the body’s defense mechanism. Eat a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products and unsalted nuts and seeds.
Vitamin A helps regulate the immune system and protects the body from infections by keeping skin and tissues in the mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory system healthy. Get this immune-boosting vitamin from foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, red bell peppers or foods labeled vitamin A fortified, such as milk or cereal.
Spinach, kale and broccoli are rich sources of vitamins A and C and contain calcium and potassium that contribute to bone health and blood pressure control — two health issues found prevalent among the HIV-positive community. And dietary fiber also helps to keep the heart and gastrointestinal system healthy. The high-quality nutrition found in these particular foods can help maintain adequate levels of vitamins and minerals that are associated with a healthy immune system.
Whole grains — like steel-cut oats, whole-wheat and bulgur — lentils and all varieties of beans are sources of high-quality, fiber-rich carbohydrates that are easy to prepare and versatile. They provide energy-boosting B vitamins and plant-based protein that helps preserve skeletal muscle mass and promote the repair and growth of new muscle tissue.
Reducing Risk of Additional Chronic Conditions
As the survival rate of people living with HIV/AIDS has increased, research has identified the virus as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular, liver and kidney disease, several types of cancer, osteoporosis and stroke. Several HIV medications can cause nausea and vomiting and some can affect lab results that test lipids, kidney and liver function. These compounding health effects, caused by the virus and its medications, reinforce the important role a nutrient-rich diet plays in a patient’s overall care plan.
HIV launches the body into a chronic state of infection. Long-term infection indicates inflammation that can cause damage on a cellular level. Antiretroviral medication can control the amount of virus in the body and reduce inflammation, but not likely back to pre-infection levels. Foods with anti-inflammatory properties like omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, tuna, mackerel and walnuts are excellent additions to a healthy diet. Maintaining a physically active lifestyle plays a major role in overall health and it’s especially helpful in managing weight.
Reviewed September 2013
Christy Wilson, RD, is a freelance health and nutrition writer, speaker and healthy cooking class teacher at an HIV community clinic. She resides in Tucson, Ariz., with her husband and two young children.