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Good Eats

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Local pharmacies play a pivotal role for many people with HIV disease, but another neighborhood staple is just as essential in the fight against HIV'the grocery store. In fact, making sure your shopping list includes a bevy of immune-boosting foods should be one of your priorities for ensuring your health is in peak performance, according to Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. 'Poor nutrition is one of the main reasons the immune system malfunctions,' Taub-Dix says. 'There are lots of other negative factors we cannot always control,' such as stress, genetics, age, and race. 'But you certainly are in charge of what is on the end of your fork.' Of course, eating healthy foods alone cannot ensure a healthier immune system, but many experts agree that a well-chosen diet plays an essential role in the overall health of anyone, especially HIVers. 'If you do not have a healthy diet, you are not going to be healthy, and your recovery from any disease is going to be poor,' says Charles Farthing, MD, chief of medicine at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, based in Los Angeles. 'What you eat'and also what you do not eat'has a profound impact on the overall health of the individual,' notes Scott Berliner, owner of Life Science Pharmacy in Harriman, N.Y., who has worked with thousands of HIV patients. But what exactly are the immune-boosting foods that need to be added to your grocery list and why are they so important? Not surprisingly, the cornerstone of any healthful diet'especially one that boosts and protects the immune system'starts with fruits and vegetables. 'Virtually every fruit and vegetable has substances that can boost the immune system,' says Taub-Dix, 'and the more colorful they are, the better they are for you.' For example, carotenoids'a group of more than 700 compounds that produce the red, yellow, and orange colors found in many fruits and vegetables' provide a big boost to the immune system. The most widely studied carotenoids are beta-carotenes (found in carrots, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe), which help the body make immune-boosting vitamin A and possibly decrease the risk of lung cancer. Citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruit, as well as berries and strawberries, not to mention vegetables like broccoli and baked potatoes, are great sources of vitamin C, which increases the production of infection-fighting white blood cells. One misconception, however, is that you have to take massive amounts of vitamin C to boost your immune system. 'All you need is what you can get naturally from six servings of fruits and vegetables,' Taub-Dix says. But it is not just the specific vitamins found in these foods that have the greatest effect on one's health'it is definitely a team effort. For example, the fiber in oranges has beneficial effects, and the water provides additional nourishment, so it is not just about the vitamin C, Taub-Dix says. 'You are simultaneously protecting cells and tissues and fighting infection, and the fiber eliminates toxins in the body,' she says. 'All that activity in concert is what leads to a healthy immune system.' But a healthy immune system cannot thrive on fruits and vegetables alone. A diet must also include complex carbohydrates, rich sources of protein and essential fats, to have the greatest impact on overall health. The 'good' fats include the omega 3 fatty acids'found in fish like salmon and mackerel and in flax seed oil'that serve as an anti-inflammatory, improve one's cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and have a positive influence on cell-mediated immunity'the part of the immune system most damaged by HIV infection. Ground flax seeds can be sprinkled into breakfast cereal, put on a salad, or even baked into muffins. Taub-Dix suggests getting the ground flax (it resembles wheat germ) and keeping it refrigerated. Flax is readily available at most health food stores or supermarkets. 'The word is getting out about flax,' she says. Protein is another essential macronutrient that helps the body repair itself but is too often overlooked in the fight against HIV, Berliner says. 'Carbs and fat help supply the body with energy and reduce inflammation, but they do not help make new cells and repair the body the way protein does,' he says. And then there is garlic. If this wonder plant comes to mind only as a horror movie prop, it is time to educate yourself. What some call nature's antibiotic stimulates multiplication of infection-fighting white blood cells, increases the efficiency of antibody production, and acts as an overall antioxidant as well. Garlic also protects against cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Taub-Dix suggests chopping up as many cloves as your palate allows and sauteing them along with a colorful medley of fresh vegetables. 'Throw in some chopped salmon,' she says, 'and you have an immune-boosting meal that is second to none.' But the benefits of immune-boosting foods do not stop at the nutritional level. Proper diet and supplements can provide vital support for the liver, which might be already taxed because of anti-HIV medications or common HIV coinfections such as hepatitis C. Eating plenty of dark-green leafy vegetables and fruits in their natural state (especially those rich in fiber, such as apples, pears, and oranges) can help reduce cholesterol and other toxins while giving your liver some much-welcome relief, according to Berliner. Eating well cannot be the immune system's only protector; it is absolutely essential to get proper medical care and the appropriate HIV-fighting medications. But choosing the right foods is a simple'but highly empowering'step needed to foster a healthier life. 'So many of these foods also protect us against cancer and heart disease and diabetes,' Taub-Dix says, 'so you are not only helping your immune system, but also preventing other diseases that break down your body.' 'When it comes to immunity, it is not just about taking a cocktail of vitamins,' Taub-Dix says. 'The natural way to get these immune helpers is through food'first and foremost.' Bon appetit!

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Mitch Rustad

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Ryan is the Digital Director of The Advocate Channel, and a graduate of NYU Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing. She is also a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. While her specialties are television writing and comedy, Ryan is a young member of the LGBTQ+ community passionate about politics and advocating for all.

Ryan is the Digital Director of The Advocate Channel, and a graduate of NYU Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing. She is also a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. While her specialties are television writing and comedy, Ryan is a young member of the LGBTQ+ community passionate about politics and advocating for all.