What You Need to Know about Nutrition for HIV Patients

Good nutrition is important at the best of times, it contributes to health and wellbeing, helps prevent a variety of problems like heart disease and diabetes, and prevents nutrient deficiencies such as anemia.

For people with HIV/AIDS nutrition is even more important. Staying as healthy as possible is critical to resisting HIV and keeping up CD4 counts. Nutrition is an important part of maintaining health and wellness. Eating right, and making sure to get all the proper nutrients, should be a crucial part of every treatment plan for people for HIV/AIDS.

How HIV Affects the Body:

HIV affects the body in a variety of ways, both when it is latent, and after it develops into AIDS. Nutrition requirements for HIV patients are affected by the way the virus changes their body’s needs and metabolism. One of the most obvious effects of HIV on the body is the increased metabolism of people with HIV/AIDS. A person’s metabolism determines the how fast they use energy. A person with a high metabolism needs more energy – and more food – then a person with a low metabolism. On average, HIV patients burn 10% more calories when they are resting the people who are HIV negative. Researchers believe that people with advanced AIDS burn up to 30% more calories than normal, though studies have not yet confirmed this.

This increased metabolism is one of the causes of the ‘wasting’ that is characteristic of HIV/AIDS.

However, the increase in calorie use isn’t the whole story. Usually, when the body isn’t getting enough calories, it uses fat reserves first. In people with HIV/AIDS, the body’s fat reserves can go untouched while the muscles begin wasting almost immediately. When this happens, the body can lose tissue, without losing weight. This means that the wasting can start without people being aware of it. Researchers still haven’t figured out the reason for this happens to the muscles.

Other effects are more subtle. Deficiencies in some nutrients are common in people with HIV/AIDS, including selenium, vitamin A, zinc, iron and others. These deficiencies often go undetected unless doctors order tests for them as a precaution. However then can cause and contribute to numerous health problems.

Another subtle effect is the way Iron will often build up in the tissues of people with HIV/AIDS. No one understands why this happens, but higher iron buildup is associated with a faster progression of the disease. Unfortunately, this means a person with HIV/AIDS can test as have a deficiency in iron because there is little iron in their blood, while this build up is happening in their tissues.

What these Effects Mean For Nutrition for HIV Patients:

In general, HIV patients need to eat more than people who are HIV negative. The increase in metabolism means the need more food to get the energy their bodies need to stay health. This can be difficult at times, as secondary infections, mouth sores, diarrhea and other problems associated with HIV/AIDS can make it a challenge to eat enough to begin with. However, if it is at all possible, people who are HIV positive should try and eat 10% more calories a day then the recommended calories for a person who is HIV negative.

People with high viral loads and advanced AIDS should probably try for a larger increase in calories if they can. It is a good idea to talk with a doctor about the best amount of increase. A doctor may keep a close eye on weight gain and loss to make sure that the body is getting enough calories, without getting too much.

The wasting of muscle tissue means that it is especially important to get enough protein. A good ratio is eating 30% protein, 30% fats and 30% carbohydrates, while making sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Maintaining weight and muscle tone are both very important for people with HIV/AIDS. Loss of either leads to increased secondary infections, other health problems, and higher mortality rates.

Addressing the nutritional deficiencies is more problematic. While some deficiencies, specifically vitamin A and zinc, are clearly connected with a faster progression of HIV/AIDS, for others the research results have been more unclear. Nutritional deficiencies for HIV patients have not been a research priority. Doctors don’t know the cause of these deficiencies or the effect of taking supplements. It may be that people with HIV/AIDS are not deficient in some of these nutrients after all, but that the specific chemicals doctors test to find deficiencies are being affected by the disease.

This situation is further complicated by the fact that some nutrients can cause negative side effects if not needed, and others interact badly with antiretroviral medications if taken as supplements.

A daily multivitamin with a full recommended daily allowance of nutrients is a good alternative to megavitamins and other nutritional supplements. The multivitamin ensures that the body gets enough of all nutrients, without the risks of possible side effects. For patients with advanced AIDS, it may be better to take 2 daily multivitamins, to counter mal-absorption or deficiencies.

Speaking with a nutritionist who has experience with HIV/AIDS is the best thing that can be done to make sure that the body is receiving proper nutrition and any nutritional problems specific to HIV/AIDS are fully addressed. A nutritionist can help identify any health problems that may be caused by nutritional deficiencies; and a nutritionist can work with a doctor can ensure that any necessary supplements are included in the treatment plan without risk of side effects or bad interactions with medication.

Benefits of Good Nutrition for HIV Patients

The Food Plate is a guideline for good nutrition.

Eating right and making sure to get proper nutrition have a number of benefits for people with HIV/AIDS. These include:

• Delaying the loss of muscle tissue known as ‘wasting’

• Reducing viral mutations

• Strengthening the immune system

• Decreasing the number and severity of secondary infections and hospitalizations

• Reducing nutritional deficiencies common to HIV/AIDS

• Reducing symptoms of HIV/AIDS

Getting good nutrition and eating right is very important for patients with HIV. It is not always easy to keep up good nutrition, but with support from a nutritionist and doctor, it can be a regular part of an HIV patient’s treatment plan.

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