You're probably well aware of the enthusiasm with which the Department of Health and our present Minister of Health promote the use of beetroot, garlic, virgin olive oil, onions and herbal cures in the treatment of HIV/Aids.
A question that needs to be addressed is how useful such individual foods and herbs are in boosting immunity and halting the progression of this dreaded disease.
A recent press release issued by the Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch (NICUS), which was published in Food Review, presents scientific arguments why this type of approach is at best simplistic and at worst, dangerous.
Nutrition and immunity
There is no doubt in any nutritionist or dietician's mind that a healthy, balanced diet is essential for a well-functioning immune system and that it should be the cornerstone of HIV/Aids treatment, in combination with antiretroviral medications. A well-balanced diet will slow down the progression of HIV to Aids, improve the patient's quality of life and reduce the incidence and severity of opportunistic infections.
However, the propagation of single food items (alone and in combination), herbal medicines, oral nutritional supplements, and vitamin and mineral supplements to treat HIV/Aids, which is increasing at an alarming rate, has several disadvantages. It is not cost-effective, may be potentially harmful and leads to many misconceptions when people living with HIV/Aids grasp at these 'straws' in the belief that eating garlic, onions, olive oil, and/or beetroot, will 'cure' their disease.
Herbal medicines may be harmful
NICUS stresses that none of the popular treatments, such as the anti-candida diet, the macrobiotic diet, amino acid supplements and herbal mixtures, have been properly researched.
The idea that herbal remedies such as the African potato are harmless and beneficial because 'they have been used for ages without any harm', is erroneous.
Some herbal medications are actually contraindicated when used with antiretroviral medications, for example St John's wort, which has been found to increase bleeding in surgical patients. Ginkgo biloba and ginseng, which are popular remedies used by people living with HIV/Aids, also increase bleeding when used with anticoagulants or supplements.
The authors advise people living with HIV/Aids to discuss the use of herbal remedies with their doctors and not to take any herbal preparation without first consulting the doctor prescribing their antiretroviral medication.
Single foods are not enough
The popular practice of promoting one or two foods as 'miracle cures' for HIV/Aids is naive and potentially dangerous.
While a considerable number of research studies have indicated that garlic is beneficial for patients with heart disease and may lower blood cholesterol levels, no human studies have as yet been carried out to show that garlic has any effect on immunity.
What we do know is that garlic can significantly lower blood levels of Saquinavir, an antiretroviral medication. NICUS urges all people living with HIV/Aids, who take Saquinavir, to avoid eating garlic.
b) African potato
African potato (Hypoxis species) has been hailed as a potent cure for HIV/Aids, but research results paint a chilling picture. No evidence that African potato has anticarcinogenic or immune-boosting effects has been found.
In one South African study with HIV-positive patients, treatment with African potato had to be terminated at an early stage because of severe bone marrow suppression. Dramatic decreases in white blood cell and CD4 cell counts in these patients indicated that African potato may not only possess no immune-boosting properties, but that it may even suppress immunity.
NICUS cautions all people living with HIV/Aids to avoid any supplements that contain African potato.
c) Virgin olive oil
Olive oil is an excellent food, rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which help to protect against heart disease. While olive oil can certainly make a positive contribution to a healthy diet for people living with HIV/Aids, there is no conclusive evidence that it actually boosts immunity.
Virgin olive oil is also expensive and its use may prevent people living with HIV/Aids from spending money on other nutritious foods, which they need to support their immunity.
NICUS points out that onions, which are rich in flavonoids and organic sulphur, have also never been tested in scientific studies to determine if they are able to increase immunity or prevent the transition from HIV to Aids.
They warn that eating large quantities of onion can cause winds and gastrointestinal distress, which is not desirable in patients suffering from chronic diarrhoea and abdominal discomfort.
Beetroot is also an excellent food that can be included in a balanced diet to good effect, but it is not a good source of iron as is erroneously believed by many people. Beetroot can, for example, not cure anaemia or HIV/Aids.
Oral nutritional supplements
Oral meal replacements or nutritional supplements are useful for supplying extra energy and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals when patients have difficulty eating solid foods.
However, there is no conclusive evidence that oral nutritional supplements improve immunity. Such supplements are often also expensive. Money spent on such replacement meals could rather be used for purchasing standard food items to ensure that the patient has a varied, balanced diet.
NICUS stresses that sensational claims about 'miracle cures' brought about by single foods (alone and in combination), herbs, the African potato, and oral nutritional supplements in HIV/AIDS, should be regarded with great caution. People living with HIV/Aids will benefit the most from a balanced, normal diet and antiretroviral therapy. Anyone who raises false hopes should refrain from doing so. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)
Visser J, Labadarios D, Labuschagne I . Alternative nutritional remedies for people living with HIV/AIDS. Food Review, July 2004, 10-12.
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