Nutrition and Exercise
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: 6/1/22 | Last updated: February 2023
Healthy eating and exercise are important components of caring for our bodies. This is especially true when battling a chronic condition like HIV.
Eating well and participating in regular physical activity can help boost the immune system, reduce stress, help minimize treatment side effects, and improve mental health, all of which are important in the fight against HIV.
HIV and healthy diet
Eating a well-balanced diet is critical for our overall health. Eating right can help improve our energy levels, help us maintain a healthy weight, help alleviate HIV-related symptoms or treatment side effects, improve medication absorption, and help keep our immune system in the best shape it can be to fight HIV.1-4 It’s also important to maintain a healthy diet when facing HIV or treatment-related symptoms that can impact our body’s functioning and nutrient balance, such as vomiting or diarrhea.
Components of a well-balanced diet
Each individual’s specific dietary needs may vary based on their age, activity level, medications, or other health conditions. Your healthcare provider can help you determine what your nutritional needs are. They also may be able to point you in the direction of a nutritionist or other professional who helps with diet planning. Some clinics even have a nutritionist on staff who may be able to assist.
Common components of a healthy diet and their functions include:
- Protein: Helps the immune system function and builds muscle. Examples of protein-containing foods include meats, fish, nuts (and nut butters like peanut butter), dairy products (including milk and cheese), and eggs.
- Carbohydrates: Help give your body energy. Also called carbs. Examples of carbohydrate-containing foods include pasta, rice, oatmeal, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, bread, and crackers.
- Fat: Like carbs, fats provide you with energy. Fat is often associated with being bad for the diet; however, fats in the appropriate amount can be beneficial. Examples of healthy fat-containing foods include avocados, nuts, cheeses, eggs, fatty fish, and peanut butter.
- Vitamins and minerals: Help our body carry out important processes and are found in many different foods. For example, calcium (a mineral) is found in foods like milk, yogurt, and eggs. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits (like oranges), potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, and more. Vitamin and mineral supplements are available for those who need it. However, a doctor or healthcare provider should be consulted before starting anything new on your own. Some vitamins, minerals, and other supplements can be dangerous or impact the effects of HIV treatment.
- Water: Helps our body carry out its everyday functions, flushes out toxins and inactivated or degraded medications, and prevents constipation. Most individuals need around 8-10 glasses of water a day. It is important to avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages like coffee or sodas whenever possible, as these can cause dehydration.1-3
If you are having issues eating a healthy diet due to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, infections or irritation in the mouth or throat, or any other issue, talk with your healthcare provider. There may be options available to alleviate some of these symptoms and help you get the nutrients that you need.
Food safety and considerations
Since HIV can suppress the immune system, individuals with HIV have a greater risk of getting infections. Therefore, it’s important to practice good food safety when living with the virus. This means washing fruits and vegetables well before eating, washing your hands before eating, using clean utensils, plates, bowls, and other cookware or preparation equipment, and drinking safe, clean water.
When traveling, it may be necessary to drink only bottled water if visiting an area that does not have access to clean tap water. Additionally, avoid eating raw seafood, meats, and eggs to further prevent foodborne illnesses. It’s also important to wash cutting boards and other preparation equipment after they’ve touched raw meat, seafood, or eggs.1,2
The benefits of exercise
Several studies have shown that regular, moderate exercise can help improve mental health, boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, boost appetite, and potentially improve CD4 counts.5-7 Exercise can also help improve physical health, including strength, endurance, and overall fitness.
HIV itself may not cause limitations on physical activity. But, other co-occurring conditions or personal characteristics may limit what kind of exercises an individual with HIV can participate in. Before starting any new exercise plan, check-in with your healthcare provider or a fitness expert to ensure you are participating in activities that are safe for you.
Living with HIV and exercise
When starting an exercise plan, it’s important to start little by little and work your way up to higher intensity exercises. Depending on your level of fitness or physical activity experience, it may be necessary to start with light exercises once or twice a week such as going for a short walk.
You can work your way up to higher intensity exercises on a more frequent basis (such as going for a jog three to four times a week) as you feel comfortable and your body allows. Going to a gym and consulting a fitness expert may be helpful for some. At-home workout videos and exercises may also be beneficial if they’re being performed safely.