Nutrition

Michael Carter, Selina Corkery

Good nutrition is important for everyone’s health. Nutrition plays an important role in the health of the immune system and its ability to fight infections. Healthy eating also helps you become and stay a healthy weight, and can help reduce the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis.

Having HIV is unlikely to mean that that you have to make any drastic changes to your diet – your existing diet will probably meet all your nutritional needs. However, it is important to get enough nutrients to help you stay well. Good nutrition is important during the time before you start HIV treatment. It is also an important part of helping anti-HIV drugs work as well as possible once you are taking them. 

If you are taking anti-HIV drugs it is important to eat a healthy, balanced diet, as HIV medication can cause changes to the way the body metabolises some fats and sugars.

A good diet will consist of a balance of the following items: 

Starchy food such as bread, cassava, cereals, green banana, millet, maize meal, potatoes, pasta, rice, and yam. Starchy foods should form the basis of your diet (about a third of all the food you eat each day). They will provide carbohydrates for energy as well as vitamins, minerals and fibre. Wholegrain versions of rice, pasta and bread contain more fibre and often more vitamins and minerals as well.

Fruit and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals and fibre. Try to eat five or more portions a day. A portion is about 80g, or equal to:

  • a medium-sized piece of fruit (such as an apple, pear or orange)
  • two small pieces of fruit (such as a satsuma or a plum)
  • a large slice of a larger fruit (such as a pineapple)
  • three heaped tablespoons of vegetables
  • three heaped tablespoons of beans or pulses (only one portion of these counts towards your five a day)
  • a small glass of fruit juice or a handful of dried fruit. (Juice only counts as one portion even if you drink more than one glass.)

Frozen and tinned fruit and vegetables count towards your five a day. Fruit and vegetables can help protect against certain cancers and heart disease. They are low in fat, so increasing the proportion of your diet made up of them is helpful if you are trying to lose weight.

Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, provide vitamins, minerals and especially calcium. Some dairy foods are high in saturated fats, so should only be eaten in small quantities, or you could eat lower-fat versions of milk, cheese and yoghurt. If you cannot tolerate milk, then fortified soya, rice or oat milk, dark green leafy vegetables, dried figs, apricots and nuts are all good sources of calcium. 

Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts provide protein, minerals and vitamins (particularly B12 from meat). Around 15% of your food intake should be from protein-rich food each day, or two portions a day. Try to eat two portions of fish a week, including at least one portion of oily fish, such as sardines, mackerel or tinned salmon.

Fats from cooking oils, butter and margarine, meat and other protein-based foods provide energy, essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K). Try to eat ‘unsaturated’ fats, such as those found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oils and vegetable oils. The ‘saturated’ fats, found in meat, cheese, butter and many processed foods can raise cholesterol. These should only be eaten in small amounts. 

Food and drinks high in fat or sugar should only be a small part of your diet. Too much of most sorts of food – but especially fats and sugars – can lead to unhealthy weight gain. See Maintaining a healthy weight for more information.

Salt and salty foods can lead to high blood pressure, if eaten in large amounts, and this can increase the possibility of having a stroke or developing heart disease. Adults and children over eleven should eat no more than six grams of salt a day, and younger children less.

Some foods are high in salt (for example, bacon, cheese, anchovies, gravy granules and stock cubes, ham, prawns, salami, salted and dry-roasted nuts, smoked meat and fish, salt fish, olives, soy sauce and yeast extract). Try to eat these less often or in smaller amounts. 

Bread and breakfast cereals can add a lot of salt to your diet, especially if you eat a lot of them. Where possible, check the labels of foods such as sauces and dressings, breakfast cereals, crisps and tinned foods and choose varieties with lower levels of salt and sugar.

Reduce the amount of salt you use in cooking. You could use more spices, fresh herbs, garlic and lemon to add flavour, for example. 

Ready-made meals and other convenience foods are often high in salt, sugar and fat. Eating these too often can make it hard to have a healthy and balanced diet.

Eating well can be tricky if you are on a tight budget, but there’s lots of advice available. See More information and advice on nutrition. There are some tips in NAM’s booklet Nutrition and on the NHS Choices website.

You can find out more about healthy eating on the NHS Choices website.

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.