The UK's The Food Chain Combines Food Education and HIV Management


HIV specialist dieticians at this London-based charity help people with HIV by providing personalized advice on how nutrition can have a positive effect on their overall health and well-being.

The Food Chain, a London-based charity, helps people living with HIV improve their long-term health and quality of life through practices like establishing a routine, explained Anna Brewster, services and volunteer manager at The Food Chain.


Why is proper nutrition so important to someone living with HIV/AIDS? Do you provide food education classes for someone who may not know of the connection between eating healthy and remaining healthy while on antiretrovirals?

There's a real range of experiences that come to us at The Food Chain. Some people have a really good handle on their nutrition and they're just experiencing barriers to that for other reasons, because they're in health crisis, or in financial crisis, or whatever it might be. Some people have a good understanding, but I would say the majority of people who come to us only have a very basic understanding of nutrition as it relates to HIV. I think that's probably mirrored across the wider community in the sense that most people have a basic understanding of nutrition, but maybe not a deeper understanding of how it can interact with our health, both physical and emotional or mental.

But obviously, having a healthy, balanced diet is important for all of us, but it's particularly important for people living with HIV because there are lots of antiretroviral medications that really need food to be taken with the medication in order for them to be fully effective. Good food and nutrients obviously help bolster a good immune system generally. So, for somebody who's living with a compromised immune system, that food and nutrition is particularly important. There are also extra considerations to be taken if you have a low immune system, so things like food and water safety. Some things that might affect somebody with a very robust immune system—might give them a slightly funny tummy or slightly upset stomach for a couple of days—could potentially have a more significant effect on somebody who is immunosuppressed. It can also help protect the body from weight loss and muscle wasting, which is a common side effect of HIV virus. Some [antiretroviral drugs] are required to be taken with food, and it helps to increase absorption of those medications and counteract the side effects of some medications.

We as a nutrition specialist charity have 2 qualified HIV specialist dietitians on staff, so they understand a lot about things like managing nausea, managing constipation and diarrhea, managing food, and food and mood interactions, all of which are related to side effects of HIV medication. There's a lot of very personalized, tailored advice that we offer people who are living with HIV when it comes to how nutrition can have a positive effect on their overall health and well-being.

It can also be a good tool to help manage somebody’s better long-term health and improve their quality of life through things like establishing a routine. If you have access to 3 meals a day, and you have good ideas about what to eat and things that are going to make you feel like you have a higher energy and are able to take on the day, that adds some structure to your day. In turn, that can also help with medication adherence, because it gives you that sense of structure and that sense of repetitive form throughout the day.

There's also the basic thing of, if you've got no food in your cupboards, if you have no way of feeding your family, feeding your children, then all other concerns become secondary. Sometimes those concerns can be things like taking care of your HIV health, so taking care of your medication or making sure that you're listening to your body in terms of what effects the medication is having on you. By coming in and supplying that food, it's providing a little bit of relief, hopefully, to that person or to that family that enables them to focus a little bit more on their HIV health and their overall health as well.