Food and HIV: What to eat

Balanced diet should be composed of macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients

AIDS patients need proper feeding in order to boost their immune system, that way, they can easily fight off infections; working with a dietician or nutritionist on a regular basis will help one develop the best plan.

Dr Emmanuel Nsabimana, a general practitioner at Polyclinique de l’Etoile, Kigali, says that the metabolism of a person living with HIV/AIDS is altered in asymptomatic phase, an additional 10 per cent of energy is required.

He explains that as a person moves into the symptomatic phases, the energy requirement goes up to 20 to 30 per cent more; children in symptomatic phases require 50 to 100 per cent more energy than expected by age and weight.

“If nutritional needs are not met, the body is more susceptible to infections and may take longer to recover from minor illnesses, this leads to a cycle of more weight loss, more vulnerability, and worsening illness,” Nsabimana notes.

Sapience Kengayiga, a nutritionist at University Teaching Hospital of Butare, says that HIV/AIDS patients should eat enough food every day and a balanced diet because the body needs all nutrients in order to help the immune system stay stronger, rebuild cells, get energy for working, and for the body to continue functioning well.

She further says that the balanced diet should be composed of macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients, for instance, macro-nutrients are nutrients which we consume in high quantity like carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Examples of carbohydrate foods are potatoes, rice, Irish potatoes, maize, while protein food includes meat, eggs, beans, peanuts, peas, fish, chicken and much more. Fats include cheese, avocado, and cooking oil.

However, micro-nutrients are substances needed in small quantities for good function of organisms, and micro-nutrients are vitamins and minerals. Food rich in vitamins are all fruits and vegetables. The foods rich in minerals are those from animals like meat, fish, and eggs. Cereals and green vegetables (like broccoli and cabbages) are also important, Kengayiga notes.

Some vitamins cannot be stored in the body, for example, Vitamin B sources like legumes, beans, lentils, seeds and nuts like sunflower seeds, almonds, and vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and Vitamin C (peas, tomatoes, oranges), that is why you need to consume them every day. While others like vitamin A (carrots, sweet potatoes, and Vitamin D (mushrooms, egg yolks, ghee), E (olive oil, tomatoes, mangoes, peanuts, sunflower seeds), and K (cucumber, green beans, chicken), the body stores them for a long time and uses them, Kengayiga states.

Nsabimana explains, “We have to promote adequate nutrient intake by identifying locally available and acceptable foods, encouraging a diet adequate in energy, proteins and other essential nutrients.”

He adds that one should increase energy intake by 10 to 15 per cent, add protein intake by eating a variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables, and promote multiple micro-nutrient supplements for improved immune function.

We also have to support individualised meal plans by considering stage of illness and symptoms, food security like availability and accessibility, resources like money or time, food likes and dislikes, knowledge, attitude and practices, especially traditional dietary taboos, Nsabimana says.


He notes that doctors advise AIDS patients to change lifestyles that negatively affect energy and nutrient intake, therefore, eliminate foods and practices that aggravate infection, raw eggs and unpasteurised dairy products, foods not thoroughly cooked, especially meats, water that isn’t well boiled, or juices made from water that wasn’t properly boiled.

He also urges to do away with foods that may affect food intake, like alcohol and coffee that have little to no nutritional value, foods that worsen symptoms related to diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and mouth sores (that is to say, expired foods and fatty foods).

Kengayiga says that one should get rid of black tea as it prevents absorption of some vitamins and minerals, but also, it may cause negative reaction of some drugs.

According to WebMD, limit sugar and salt, whether because of the virus or the treatment drugs one is taking, HIV raises the chances of getting heart disease; this means that too much sugar and salt can be harmful. Have healthy fats in moderation. Fat provides energy, but they are also high in calories. If one is not trying to gain weight, limit how much of it is eaten. Heart-healthy choices include nuts, vegetable oils, and avocado.