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The basics of nutrition


A healthy diet is important for everyone, regardless of their HIV status. If you have HIV you do not need to follow a special diet; but good nutrition and eating healthily can help to keep your immune system strong and reduce your chances of developing illnesses.

What are the Government’s guidelines for good nutrition?

A balanced diet is the key to good nutrition. The Government have recently made changes to their recommendations for a healthy diet, the Eatwell Guide shows us what we should aim to eat each day (click to enlarge):

 Nutrition plate graphic

The main food groups are:
  • non-dairy protein (this includes meat, fish, eggs)
  • dairy (including milk, cheese, yoghurt)
  • starchy foods (potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, cassava, yam)
  • fats (there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats)
  • fruit and vegetables (at least five portions per day).

Diet and health problems

Some health conditions which are common in people living with HIV can be avoided or improved by making changes to your diet. For example, conditions such as heart diseasediabetes or stroke can be caused by having too much fat in your diet.

Being overweight can also impact upon your health – eg, type 2 diabetes is commonly seen in overweight people.

Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, which increases your risk of stroke and heart disease. A lack of calcium can increase the risk of osteopenia or osteoporosis.

Making simple changes to your diet can help to reduce the risk of health problems. Improving your diet can also reduce your chances of developing cancer.

Diet and antiretrovirals

Today’s HIV medicines have far fewer food restrictions than the early HIV drugs. Usually the only special requirement may be to take your medicine with or without food. NAM’s chart shows different drugs and their dietary requirements.

  1. Protein
  2. Carbohydrates (starchy food)
  3. Fat


We need protein to build up our muscles and organs, and to strengthen our immune system.

How much protein do I need?

Around 12% of your diet should be made up of protein.

What are the best sources of protein?

Carbohydrates (starchy food)

Carbohydrates help provide your body with energy - you can think of them as fuel. They also contain vitamins, fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

How much starchy food do I need?

In total, 38% of your diet should be made up of starchy foods, ideally made up of wholegrain versions.

What are the best sources of starchy food?

Starchy food can be found in bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, oats, cassava, cereals and yams.

TIP: Choose brown (wholegrain) rice, bread, cereal and pasta as they are high in fibre. Low fat toppings for pizza and fillings for sandwiches and baked potatoes will make starchy food as healthy as possible.


Saturated and unsaturated fat:

A small amount of fat is healthy, but it is important to know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats. The Eatwell Guide recommends that oils and spreads should make up no more than 1% of our diet and these should be made up of unsaturated oils.

Fat is important as it provides us with energy and helps us to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. The essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 come from fats and can’t be made by your body.

Good and bad fats

There are two main types of fat, saturated (‘bad’) and unsaturated (‘good’).

Saturated (‘bad’) fats include:

  • fatty meat
  • butter, ghee and lard
  • cheese
  • ice cream, soured cream and cream
  • biscuits, cakes and pastries
  • chocolate
  • some savoury snacks
  • palm oil and coconut oil.

Unsaturated (‘good’) fats include:

Monounsaturated fats:

  • olive oil and rapeseed oil
  • avocados
  • almonds, brazil nuts, peanuts.

Polyunsaturated fats:

  • rapeseed oil (which mainly contains monounsaturated fats), cornflower oil, sunflower oil (which contain omega-6 fats)
  • oily fish such as mackerel, trout, herring, kippers, sardines and salmon (which contain omega-3 oils).

Dietary fats

TIP: Certain foods such as eggs, kidneys and shellfish contain cholesterol, known as 'dietary cholesterol'. This has less of an effect on our bodies than cholesterol resulting from eating unsaturated fats.

The link between fats and cholesterol

Too much saturated fat in your diet can raise your cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol can cause deposits to be made in your arteries, which narrow them and increase your chances of a heart attack or stroke.

The following factors can also raise your cholesterol:

  • smoking
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure.

TIP: The following factsheet from The Association of UK Dietitians contains some good information about cholesterol.

HIV drugs and cholesterol

If you are living with HIV, some antiretroviral drugs - including some protease inhibitors - may interfere with the balance of your blood fats, leading to an increase in cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of fat) which can clog up your arteries. Reducing the saturated fats in your diet can help to lower cholesterol.

Five a day

Fruit and vegetables are important because they contain vitamins and minerals and are low in calories and fat. It is important to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables each day - they count whether they are fresh, canned, frozen or dried. This should amount to 40% of your diet. 

What is a portion?

A portion equals 80g or:

  • an apple, banana or orange
  • two smaller fruits such as kiwis or satsumas
  • half a grapefruit
  • a slice of melon
  • a handful of berries
  • a medium-sized tomato
  • three heaped tablespoons of vegetables
  • a dessert bowl of salad.

TIP: Starchy vegetables such as potatoes or cassava do not count towards your five a day - sweet potatoes do count, however.

TIP: Beans and pulses such as lentils do count, but they only count as one portion, however many you eat in a day.

TIP: A glass of unsweetened fruit juice counts as one portion, however much you drink.

NHS Choices has an in-depth page on portion sizes, as does The Association of UK Dietitians.


The Eatwell Guide recommends that you drinks six to eight glasses of fluid every day. These can include:

  • water
  • lower fat milk
  • sugar free drinks
  • tea
  • coffee
  • fruit juices and smoothies (but no more than 150ml per day).

Other resources:



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  • I had the worst night ever xmas eve stomach pain bloated major head ache but i belief it was because i had apple cider vinigar on my spinach mixed with chichen and bacon green peppers and onion could this be the case felt much better since being so ill and never felt like this befor iam only resently diagonsed and just got out of hospital from phoumonia

    Posted 19:06 Thu 26 Dec 2013

The Information Standard: Certified member

This article was last reviewed on 15/6/2016 by Anna Peters

Date due for the next review: 15/6/2019

Content Author: Kerri Virani

Current Owner: Health promotion

More information:

Rapeseed oil benefits, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Cereals and Oilseeds, 2014

Fats explained, British Heart Foundation

The Eatwell Guide - Helping you eat a healthy, balanced diet, Public Health England, 2016

The Eatwell Guide: How to use in promotional materials, Public health England, March 2016

Ten ways to boost your health, NHS Choices, October 2014

Prevalence in HIV positive adults and adolescents, NAM aidsmap

Why does osteoporosis occur in people with HIV? NAM aidsmap

Non-HIV related illnesses - cardiovascular disease, NAM aidsmap, November 2013

Nutrition, Nam publication, click on link to view booklet, revised by Michael Carter, 2011

A balanced diet, NHS Choices, May 2014

Diabetes, British Nutrition Foundation, 2015

Bone and joint health, British Nutrition Foundation, 2015

Heart Disease, British Nutrition Foundation, 2015

Proteins - Why do I need protein?, Rachael Mayfield-Blake, BUPA, November 2012

Introduction to HIV nutrition, Food Chain, 2015

Fish and shellfish, NHS Choices, December 2013

Milk and dairy in your diet, NHS Choices, March 2015

The healthy way to eat eggs, NHS Choices, March 2015

Meat in your diet, NHS Choices, May 2013

Pulses, NHS Choices, April 2013

Carbohydrates, Rachael Mayfield-Blake, BUPA, September 2012

Starchy foods (carbs), British Nutrition Foundation, 2015

Starchy foods and carbohydrates, NHS Choices, March 2015

Food fact sheet - Carbohydrates, by Sue Baic, Dietitian. Updated by Gillian Killiner, Dietitian, The Association of UK Dietitians, April 2013

Fat: the facts, NHS Choices, April 2015

Cholesterol, Michael Carter, NAM aidsmap, August 2011

Cholesterol, written by Sue Baic, Dietitian. Updated by Gillian Killiner, Dietitian. The Association of UK Dietitians, October 2014

Lower your cholesterol, NHS Choices, July 2013

Why 5 a day?, NHS Choices, December 2013

5 a day: what counts?, NHS Choices, December 2013

5 a day portion sizes, NHS Choices, December 2013

Fruit and vegetables - how to get five-a-day. Written by Helen Bond, Dietitian. Reviewed by Alison Clarke, Dietitian, The Association of UK Dietitians, July 2014

HIV and your quality of life: a guide to side effects and other complications, i-Base, December 2010