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Healthy eating

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 infection. 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 doesn’t mean that you have to make big changes to your diet. But eating the right foods can make you feel better, have more energy and can keep your heart and bones healthy as you get older.

If you have concerns or questions, your clinic will usually be able to put you in touch with a dietitian. Dietitians can also help you to manage your weight or problems like high cholesterol, or manage any side-effects from HIV treatment that affect how you eat (like nausea or diarrhoea). Side-effects from HIV treatment are often mild and lessen or go away completely with time.

For most people living with HIV, good nutrition is the same as it would be for anyone else.

A good diet will consist of a balance of the following types of food:

  • Starchy foods
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Dairy products or alternatives
  • Beans, pulses, nuts, fish, eggs and meat
  • Unsaturated oils and spreads.

Foods that are high in fat and sugar should be eaten less often and in small amounts.

Starchy foods include bread, cassava, cereals, green banana, millet, maize meal, potatoes, pasta, couscous, rice and yam. Starchy foods should form the basis of your diet – about a third of your food intake each day. They provide carbohydrates for energy, fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

If you have a gluten allergy or coeliac disease and need to exclude gluten from your diet, there are many gluten-free versions of foods available including pastas and breads.

Try to choose wholegrain versions over refined carbohydrates where possible. Wholegrain versions of rice, pasta, couscous, cereals and bread contain more fibre and often more vitamins and minerals as well. Leaving skins on potatoes can also help to increase your fibre intake.

A diet high in fibre helps digestion and may reduce the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.

Fruit and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals and fibre. Like starchy foods, they should make up a third of your daily food intake. Try to eat five or more portions of fruit or vegetables each day. A portion is 80g, or roughly equal to:

  • one medium-sized piece of fruit (such as an apple, pear or orange).
  • two small pieces of fruit (such as a satsuma or plum).
  • a large slice of a larger fruit such as pineapple.
  • three heaped tablespoons of vegetables (these can be fresh, tinned or frozen). Vegetables such as potatoes and yams do not count towards your five-a-day target as they are counted as starchy foods.
  • three heaped tablespoons of beans or pulses (these only count towards one of your five-a-day target, no matter how many portions you eat).
  • a handful of dried fruit (30g) or a small glass of fresh fruit juice or a smoothie. Like beans and pulses, juices and smoothies only count as one of your five-a-day target even if you drink more than a glass. Fruit juice is very high in natural sugar as juicing or blending fruit releases the sugar so it becomes ‘free sugar’.

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. It is also a good idea to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables as different types provide different vitamins and nutrients.

Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, provide vitamins, minerals and particularly calcium. You should include some dairy, or dairy alternatives, in your diet. Some dairy foods are high in saturated fats, so should only be eaten in small quantities, or you could choose lower-fat versions of milk, cheese and yoghurt.

If you avoid dairy products, then these can be replaced with fortified soya, nut, rice, oat or coconut alternatives. Check the nutrition labels as not all of these alternatives are fortified with calcium, and organic products rarely are.

It is a good idea to try and get your calcium from a range of sources rather than just rely on dairy products. Dark green leafy vegetables like kale, Chinese greens (e.g. bok choy), broccoli, dried fruits, nuts, beans such as soy and baked beans, tofu and bread are all very good sources of calcium and also iron.

Fish that contain bones that you eat (e.g. sardines, pilchards and whitebait) are also good sources of calcium.

Beans, pulses, nuts, fish, eggs and meat provide protein, minerals and vitamins (particularly iron and B12 from meat). You should eat some of these protein-rich foods as part of your diet.

Other non-animal based protein options include quinoa, soya, tofu, Quorn products and vegetable protein. Pulses (beans, lentils and peas) are a great source of cheap and low-fat protein.

You could benefit from eating two portions of fish a week, including at least one portion of oily fish. Oily fish contains omega-3 which has anti-inflammatory properties and can also help prevent some heart problems.

The Department of Health has advised that people should eat no more than 70g of red or processed meat a day,due to the risk of bowel cancer. Both processed and red meat have been linked with other cancers too – red meat with pancreatic and prostate cancer and processed meat with stomach cancer. Some meats that are high in fat can also raise cholesterol.

Therefore it’s a good idea to eat a variety of protein-rich foods rather than just rely on red or processed meats.

Fats from cooking oils, margarine and spreads provide energy, essential fatty acids, such as omega-3, and fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K). Try to eat ‘unsaturated’ fats, such as those found in nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oils and vegetable oils and oily fish. The ‘saturated’ fats, found in meat, cheese and butter can raise cholesterol. Other foods high in saturated fats include cakes, biscuits and pies. 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. They can contain empty calories and provide little or no nutrients. Too much of most sorts of food – but especially fats and sugars – can lead to unhealthy weight gain. Sugary foods can also lead to tooth decay.

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 or kidney problems. Adults and children over eleven should eat no more than 6g of salt a day, and younger children less.

Some foods are high in salt (e.g. bacon, cheese, crisps, 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 and choose reduced-salt or ‘no added salt’ varieties of food where possible.

Bread and breakfast cereals can add a lot of salt to your diet, especially if you eat them frequently. Breakfast cereals can also contain a large amount of sugar. Where possible, also check the labels of foods such as sauces and dressings, 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, 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.

You can find out more about eating a balanced diet on the NHS Choices website at:


Published August 2016

Last reviewed August 2016

Next review August 2019

Contact NAM to find out more about the scientific research and information used to produce this booklet.

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.
Community Consensus Statement on Access to HIV Treatment and its Use for Prevention

Together, we can make it happen

We can end HIV soon if people have equal access to HIV drugs as treatment and as PrEP, and have free choice over whether to take them.

Launched today, the Community Consensus Statement is a basic set of principles aimed at making sure that happens.

The Community Consensus Statement is a joint initiative of AVAC, EATG, MSMGF, GNP+, HIV i-Base, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, ITPC and NAM/aidsmap

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.

NAM’s information is intended to support, rather than replace, consultation with a healthcare professional. Talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team for advice tailored to your situation.