HIV/Aids: Can diet help?

Although dietary interventions cannot cure HIV/Aids, there are three important facets of this illness that are directly influenced by diet.

These include avoidance of malnutrition to prevent people from becoming susceptible to HIV/Aids, treatment of malnutrition that occurs in Aids to slow down the progression of the disease, and use of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids to boost the immune system.

Malnutrition and the immune system
Studies show a cyclical interaction between nutrition, immunity, infections and HIV/Aids.

Malnutrition that exists before an individual becomes infected with HIV weakens the immune system and makes the person more susceptible to infections, including HIV. Some authors regard malnutrition as "an important, facilitating co-factor that promotes the acquisition or progression of the disease".

The type of malnutrition that decreases the proper functioning of the immune system represents serious deficiencies of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals.

People who are deprived of an adequate food intake due to poverty, and natural and national disasters such as droughts, floods and wars (all of which are common in Africa, for example), are much more likely to have compromised immune systems. This lack of immunity makes these people susceptible to all kinds of infections, including HIV. Unfortunately, this aspect of combating HIV/Aids is of such a vast magnitude that it can only be addressed by governments and international relief agencies.

Malnutrition caused by HIV/Aids is often called "slim disease", because people suffering from the disease literally tend to waste away. People living with Aids suffer from anorexia, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, fevers and opportunistic infections, which all put an enormous strain on body reserves of energy, protein and micronutrients.

In addition, many antiretroviral drugs can cause nausea, anorexia and vomiting, which interfere with food intake.

This wasting away is associated with a pronounced loss of lean body mass (muscle tissue) and depletion of body protein reserves. Health workers generally associate a loss of more than 33% of a person's normal body weight with a decreased chance of survival and a predictor of early death.

Dietary intervention
The most important dietary intervention is, firstly to try, and combat protein and energy malnutrition. The person should try to follow a high-protein, high-energy diet.

Use of liquid food supplements can boost intakes of protein and energy, particularly when the person can't eat solid foods because of nausea and vomiting. Discuss this aspect with your doctor, dietician or pharmacist.

An Aids patient may also have to add liquid booster foods to their usual food intake to ensure that they're getting sufficient protein and energy.

A diet rich in proteins and energy may help slow the progressive infection of Aids, and prolong life.

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