Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, nearly 75 million people have been infected and about 36 million people have died of HIV.  Of the 35 million or so people living with HIV today, over 70% of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 1 in every 20 adults are infected.  While the advent of antiretroviral therapy (ART) has done much to save lives, malnutrition remains pervasive among patients starting medical treatment, contributing to persistently high mortality rates in several African countries.  This prompted researchers to investigate how bolstering nutrition among the new HIV patients might boost survival odds.

The results are published in the scientific journal BMJ, recounting the findings of researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the Jimma University of Ethiopia to examine how nutritional supplementation in the first three months of ART might affect outcomes.  The collaborative project provided 318 patients–66% female, with a median age of 33–with a peanut butter based supplement containing either soy or whey protein, and a variety of key nutrients, including zinc, selenium and copper.  Compared to patients who received ART but no supplement, the study group gained three times as much weight–including more muscle weight.  This, in addition to improved grip strength, enabled the patients to function more fully in work and family life.  Most notably, prognosis improved by helping restore immune cells needed to suppress HIV.

The caloric density and high fat content (60%) of the supplement–originally developed for severely malnourished children–made it uniquely suited for short term use by adults undergoing ART in countries with challenged food supply, while longer-term reliance could present metabolic complications.  But the experiment provides insights for ART patients in developed countries with over-abundant food supplies as well.

A diet rich in fruit and vegetables, legumes and lean proteins can provide HIV-positive patients with the nutrients to repair damaged cells, strengthen immunity to  better combat disease, manage symptoms and process medication.  Fat content should be roughly half–30%–of that in the experimental supplement, and fats should derive from healthy sources like olive oil, nuts, avocado, seeds and fish.  And everyone, regardless of any underlying chronic health challenges, can reinforce immunity by eating a wide variety of produce, especially top sources of nutrients such as vitamin A (sweet potatoes, carrots, kale), vitamin C (pineapple, broccoli, kiwi), vitamin E (sunflower seeds, almonds), selenium (Brazil nuts, oysters) and zinc (crab, clams).

Immunity bonus: Take time for tea– Harvard researchers found tea drinkers had significantly higher antiviral interferon in their bloodstream.

 Published July 1, 2014