HIV: Food is the best medicine

This means that good food is important to provide the necessary energy to keep the immune system working. Moreover, over 50 percent of our immune system is found in our gut and digestive tract. This plays an important role in the balance of our body and health.

Good nutrition is vital for the health and survival of all people, but it is particularly important for people with HIV and AIDS. Good nutrition means eating foods each day that will give you the vitamins, minerals, and other things you need to keep your body strong.

It means eating foods that give you enough calories to have a healthy body weight. It means getting enough protein to keep your body built up and repair any damage it may have.

HIV and associated diseases weaken the immune system and increase the body’s need for energy. Food can provide the first line of defence in warding off the detrimental effects of HIV and AIDS and help people recover from illness.

Good nutrition is not a substitute for life-extending drug therapies. But nutritious food, in combination with safe water, good hygiene and care, can help people with HIV stay healthier longer, adhere to drug therapies and lead a better quality of life.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine (July, 2004) reported that lack of food is often mentioned as the most likely cause of non-adherence to anti-retroviral drug (ARV) therapy. As one HIV-positive Kenyan declared, “if you give us ARVs, please give us food, just food.” The article acknowledges the irony, not captured in the discourse on treatment advocacy, in providing ARV drugs to populations that lack access to safe water or food.

Good nutrition is very important for people with HIV infection. Nutrition helps fight HIV infection, protects the body, improves quality of life, and helps manage co-infections.

If you have thrush, avoid foods and beverages high in sugar. Avoid hot temperature foods. Try foods at room temperature or cold. If you have trouble chewing or swallowing, try pureeing foods in a blender.

Avoid acidic foods and drinks, such as tomatoes and orange juice.

If one has mouth and throat problems, including difficulty in chewing or swallowing, avoid salty foods. Avoid rough or coarse foods, which can irritate your throat and practice good oral hygiene.

Rinse with one teaspoon baking soda to one cup water after every meal or snack. Try anaesthetic (numbing) throat sprays or lozenges before eating.

If you have nausea or are vomiting, try eating small more frequent meals (4 to 6 small meals per day). Avoid drinking fluids with meals. Drink fluids one hour before or after meals. Avoid greasy, fried, spicy, or very sweet foods. Avoid foods with strong smells, or try eating them lukewarm or cold. Try eating dry or bland foods such as toast, crackers, bread, and cereal. Try sipping ginger ale, juice or flat soda. You may want to dilute juices with water. Avoid lying down for 2 hours after eating. Replenish fluids when you have been vomiting. Try sucking on ginger lozenges. Ginger root can be steeped as a tea. Ask your doctor about anti-nausea medication.

If one has diarrhoea, avoid high-fat, greasy, and spicy foods. Avoid milk or milk products. Limit your intake of caffeine, such as coffee, caffeinated sodas, tea, and chocolate. Avoid alcohol. Avoid large amounts of fibre-rich foods, at one time.

Include good potassium sources every day such as, bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and orange juice. Talk with your doctor, you may need further medical workup/assessment.

Selenium deficiency has been observed in a number of studies of HIV-positive people and has been associated with greater risk of disease progression and death. A study found that HIV-infected adults with selenium deficiency were nearly 20 times more likely to die from HIV-related causes than those with adequate levels.

This study found low blood plasma selenium was a greater risk factor for death. There is also evidence that HIV-infected people with low selenium levels are at a greater risk of certain opportunistic illnesses, irrespective of CD4 cell count or antiretroviral therapy.

Selenium plays an important role in the immune system, stimulating a variety of immune responses, including the killer T-cells which destroy HIV-infected cells. Selenium can be found in a wide range of foods such as brazil nuts, fish and shellfish, meat, bread, cereals, eggs, cheese, rice and walnuts.

The amount of selenium in vegetables is generally low, although it varies depending on the amount of selenium in the soil.

The maximum total daily intake of selenium is as follows: infants 0-6 months, 45 mcg; infants 7-12 months, 60 mcg; children 1-3 years, 90 mcg; children 4-8 years, 150 mcg; children 9-13 years, 280 mcg; males and females 14 years and older, 400 mcg; and pregnant or nursing women, 400 mcg.

Excessive selenium intake, beginning at about 900 mcg daily, can cause selenium toxicity. Signs include depression, nervousness, emotional instability, nausea, vomiting, and in some cases loss of hair and fingernails.

Adequately feeding your immune system boosts its fighting power. Immune boosters work in many ways.

They increase the number of white cells in the immune system army, train them to fight better, and help them form an overall better battle plan. Boosters also help to eliminate the deadwood in the army, substances that drag the body down.

Foods containing the following substances help boost the immune system: vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, bioflavenoids, zinc, garlic, selenium and omega-3 fatty acids. Consult your dietician today for more details.

l Kazhila Chinsembu is a lecturer at the University of Namibia. Email:

July 2006
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