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Whey proteins as food supplement for PLHIV

A Filipino living with HIV would like to know if taking whey proteins could be good for PLHIVs, and Dr. Jose Narciso Melchor Sescon provides some information about this.

Dr. Jose Narciso Melchor Sescon – president of the AIDS Society of the Philippines and current Chief of Clinics of Sta. Ana Hospital – answers all your HIV-related inquiries. For all your questions, email or

Dear Doc,

My friend told me to start taking whey protein as it could benefit someone like me living with HIV. Is this true?

Mr. Protein Conscious

Thank you for your question. Whey protein comes from cow’s milk; it is a combination of proteins that are relatively easy to digest for people living with HIV (PLHIV). As we have seen, having HIV increases the demand for nutrition – most especially, we have noted increase in weight loss, fatigue and thinning of muscular areas of the body, and thus, this would result to “muscle wasting” among PLHIV. Note that muscle tissues are made up primarily of proteins.

“Muscle wasting” in HIV is still not well understood and may be due to a combination of factors, including metabolic disturbances, reduced food intake, and increased energy needs. A great and possible practical solution to this problem is to increase protein intake. Having said this, whey protein may be useful because it is an easily digestible source of protein.

Note, nonetheless, that there remain few studies assessing the use of oral whey protein supplements by PLHIV. One small-scale study was conducted in three PHAs (persons living with HIV and/or AIDS)  who experienced wasting but whose condition had stabilized in the two months preceding the trial. The subjects’ weight returned to healthier levels after three months of whey protein supplementation.

Another study combining exercise, anabolic steroids, nutritional counseling and whey protein, a significant increase in body cell mass (a measure of muscle tissue) was seen. Unfortunately, however, it is difficult to assess the specific role each of the above factors played in this improvement.

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Still, many anecdotal reports do tell of gains in muscle mass among PLHIV who take whey protein. According to the American buyers’ club DAAIR (Direct Access Alternative Information Resources), a number of clients taking whey protein and glutamine have gained lean muscle mass and experienced improvements in their symptoms of fatigue.

Now, there are many forms of whey protein available. Some contain colostrums, others contain glutamine, and some are primarily lactose free. The removal of lactose may be a particular advantage for PHAs, who are often lactose intolerant. No conclusive evidence exists to help identify the best brand at the moment, although DAAIR produces a chart comparing various whey protein supplements, particularly those most widely used or studied.

PLHIV using whey protein generally dissolve 20grams to 40 grams of the powder a day in juice, milk or water. It should not be dissolved in a heated liquid because heat may destroy some of the proteins. This dose can be divided into several small doses per day.

Whey protein has few side effects although large doses may cause bloating and flatulence. Increasing your intake of protein may also increase stress on the liver and kidneys. PLHIV with abnormal liver enzyme levels should have them monitored regularly.

Many nutrition experts support the idea of a high-protein diet for PLHIV. Unfortunately (and again this is worth reiterating), little information exists about the benefits of whey protein, particularly about the merits of competing products. These products vary widely in price and only a few of them are being studied in PLHIV.

In the end, it is recommended for a PLHIV to seek nutrition counseling and support in order to ensure that the right diet and nutrition is taken complementing with current medications and supplements so as to ensure maximum absorption and maximum benefits. Good health starts with good nutritional information along with good compliance of medications.


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