Eating healthy and exercising are essential habits to maintain no matter what. However, they have a special significance when living with HIV. Viral suppression is the goal for people living with HIV. This means that maintaining health through nutritious eating habits and exercise can significantly reduce the risks while also improving your quality of life!
What does it mean to eat healthily?
Eating healthy is different for everyone. It is vital to make sure you’re getting various food groups, such as fruits and vegetables, animal proteins, grains (including whole grains), dairy products like milk or yogurt, and cheese, with minimally processed foods. The American Heart Association has excellent resources that can help guide your diet choices!
1. Plan ahead to make cooking easier.
One way to make cooking more manageable is to create a plan. For example, you can cook a large pot of beans or rice on the weekend and then freeze portions for quick meals during the weekdays.
Plan your menu around what’s in season. Fruits harvested at their peak ripeness typically have more nutrients than those shipped from out-of-season areas. Local farms usually have the best prices, too!
If you find it challenging to prepare a variety of foods on your own, sign up for a cooking class or check out some online recipes within your skill level.
2. Pick recipes with similar ingredients to reduce the cost of groceries.
When cooking, try to use recipes with similar ingredients. For example, you can make a whole meal out of roasted vegetables and lentils by finding several different recipes for each ingredient.
Buy in bulk when it makes sense. This is especially true if the food has a long shelf life, like rice or canned beans.
Try making your own spice blends to save money. You can buy a variety of dried herbs and spices in bulk for much cheaper than it would cost you at the grocery store.
The key is to find what works best for you and your family!
3. Eat a healthy breakfast.
If you’re not a morning person, don’t worry! You can have oatmeal with fruit and nuts for breakfast. This will give your body the energy it needs to function throughout the day and provide nutrients like iron.
If you struggle with a low appetite in the morning, you can go for something lighter like a smoothie or yogurt.
4. Avoid drinking from plastic bottles.
Avoid drinking from plastic bottles – use glass instead. Plastic is not a safe material to drink out of because it contains chemicals that can leech into the water. Many people cannot taste or smell these toxins (making them more likely to ingest dangerous amounts). In addition, bottled beverages often contain high levels of sugar and calories, which you’ll want to avoid.
Drink filtered water, or bring a reusable bottle with you on the go. If not drinking from a plastic container doesn’t sound like an option for you (or if it’s unavailable), then try filtering tap water and bringing your own reusable bottles with you when going out. This will help save money in addition to encouraging healthier habits.
5. Use smaller plates.
Use smaller plates so that your portions will appear larger than they are, making it easier to stick with sensible portion sizes. Portion control is one of the easiest ways to start eating healthy.
6. Avoid sugary drinks, candy bars, and pastries.
Try to limit your sugar intake. Avoid sugary drinks like soda or juice, which contain a high number of calories. You should also steer clear of sweetened coffee with creamers or flavored syrups–especially if you have a low appetite! You’ll want to avoid candy bars and pastries, too, since they contain lots of sugar.
7. Snack on fruits instead of chips or pretzels.
When you snack on fruit, you are adding valuable nutrients to your diet and getting some essential micro-nutrients. The water content in the fruit will help to quench any thirst that might be lingering. The fiber in the fruit is also perfect for feeling full and satisfied throughout the day.
8. Don’t forget to include plenty of vegetables in your diet.
When cooking at home, make sure you include more vegetables by using them as the main ingredient. For example, try pasta with veggies instead of marinara sauce. If you’re not a fan of vegetables, try roasting them to bring out the sweetness of their natural sugars.
9. Avoid processed foods
Processed foods are often high in sugar, salt, and fat — more than what is healthy for your body! Processed food items include “fast” or packaged meals like canned soup, frozen dinners, microwavable pastries/doughnuts, packaged cookies, or crackers.
If you eat processed food items like frozen dinners, make sure they are low in fat and sodium (e.g., Lean Cuisine).
10. Limit alcohol intake to one drink a day
You should limit your alcohol intake to just one drink per day if possible. Excess amounts of alcohol can cause weight gain and increase your risk for liver disease. This can be especially important if your HIV medication is known to contribute to liver damage.
11. Try dark chocolate!
Dark chocolate is an excellent choice for anyone living with HIV because it contains lots of healthy nutrients like antioxidants, fiber, and minerals essential to overall health. In addition, it may help improve your mood.
12. Don’t forget to drink lots of water.
It is essential to stay hydrated when living with HIV. Your medication may cause dehydration, which can prompt fatigue and an increased risk for other health conditions such as kidney stones and osteoporosis. A lack of water worsens these side effects.
13. Drink water or tea before a meal.
Drink water or tea before a meal, and you may feel full faster, decreasing your likelihood of overeating. Fill up on the healthy fluids first to help with hunger and fullness cues that lead to overeating and weight gain. Plus, these liquids support other parts of your health, like kidney function.
14. Add in some protein at every meal – eggs are a great choice!
Protein can be found in many different foods. If you’re on a budget or have other dietary restrictions, like gluten-free, some protein sources are better than others. To eat enough protein every day, try incorporating eggs into your diet! They contain about 6 grams per egg and are inexpensive compared to meat proteins. You can cook them any way you like: fried, scrambled, boiled, etc.; they will all provide at least 10% of your daily needs for protein.
You will also find protein in lean cuts of meat, fish, beans, and lentils–and all can be prepared in different ways.
15. Get rid of the foods you know are bad for you or that make you feel bloated.
Eating foods that make you feel bloated or gives you common food sensitivities like gas, diarrhea, and stomach pain could be even worse for your HIV.
The best way to figure out which ones are giving you these symptoms is by keeping a food journal of everything you eat–the good and the bad! Do this for at least two weeks and try to eat as many different types of foods that you can.
Record anything (symptoms, thoughts, feelings) after eating a particular food and take note of what you ate before the next time it happens–you’ll notice patterns eventually! Once you identify which ones are giving you problems, avoid them or at least limit your intake.
Get started today
Eating healthy is difficult when living with HIV, but it doesn’t have to be. With a few minor changes, you can start eating better today and reap the benefits of improved moods, more robust immune systems, and more! Which food-related change will YOU implement first?