Nutrition program to help HIV/AIDS patients stay healthier

Dec 31, 2012

Advancements in AIDS treatment means that people with the illness are living longer than ever. That means they need to take better care of their long-term health. A new program for AIDS patients in the north country focuses on improving their nutrition.

Clients and staff meet for a group nutrition education session at AIDS Community Resources in Syracuse.

It's part of a new program that combines food vouchers and nutrition education to help AIDS patients take better care of their health.

The clients have lots of questions about eating healthier.

"Is there a healthier way to fry foods?" one client asks.

Nutrition educator Gabrielle Mayfield answers no. Fried foods are generally pretty unhealthy. But she says there is some wiggle-room to prepare similar foods that are a lot better for him.

"You can prepare your foods differently to still give them that fried taste, but they're not fried. You know, you've got to take textures and things like that all into consideration. There's a lot of recipes for 'almost' fried chicken. And it still tastes very similar, but you're omitting all that fat from deep frying it," Mayfield says.

Some clients didn't want their names used for privacy reasons. 

Another client is worried about the costs of a healthier diet. 

"You know what? We went grocery shopping one time, my daughter and I. And she went to New York City and came back on this health thing. Kashi cereal is the most expensive cereal I ever seen! Two hundred dollars went like that (snapping)! I had less groceries!" she says.

In fact, a lot of people in this program struggle to pay bills. Many are on food stamps. Mayfield says that's why budgeting is a core part of the program. 

"A part of our group sessions, one of the things that we're going to talk about a lot is unit pricing and budget shopping, meal planning. All of these things can help stretch your food dollar a lot more," she says.

These two clients are part of a nine-county grant-funded program in central and northern New York that will run for five years through AIDS Community Resources, or ACR.

Participants get $50 food vouchers every two weeks and must participate in group and individual nutrition education sessions.

Mayfield says with improvements in AIDS medicines, patients need to think more long-term about their health.

"With all the widespread of the new drugs coming out, people are living a lot longer. And with that entails the need to take care of your body," she said. "We've seen a big turnaround medically in treating HIV/AIDS patients. There's no longer a lot of wasting, and there's a lot of people living longer, and dealing with other chronic conditions."

Steve Wood is community health advocate coordinator at ACR. He tells clients at the meeting that good nutrition can help address some of the side effects of the medications they're taking. Those medications can make patients' livers and kidneys work really hard.

"And your bones, too – because some of the medications that people take, you know, Atripla, which is the big, popular one that everybody takes, really takes a lot of minerals out of your bones," Wood says.

Client Brian Cowden has been HIV positive since he was a teenager. He recently became a vegetarian to help bring down his cholesterol.

"When I started with HIV, I was taking 63 pills three times a day," he said. "So I have made it a personal goal, I'm not taking any more pills if I don't have to. Give me an option, give me an ability to change something in my life before I have to take more pills."

Cowden says he's learning about things like tofu, which he didn't know how to cook before. He says what he's looking for overall is more options.

"I love to cook. I love to cook, but it's always – you have to learn, constantly. For my particular diet of a vegetarian, if you don't learn multiple ways to make your food well, you end up failing at being a vegetarian, and this program is helping me learn and expand." 

And hopefully live a longer, healthier life with AIDS.