If healthy eating, exercise and weight loss are at the top of your 2022 New Year’s resolutions list, you’re not alone. These goals are very common but also difficult to achieve.
Sticking to a diet and exercise regimen is especially challenging for individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities who “are far more likely to be overweight, with rates of obesity for disabled adults and children 58% and 38% higher than for their able-bodied counterparts, respectively,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The propensity for being overweight and sedentary puts disabled individuals at increased risk for obesity and health problems such as cardiovascular disease, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems and Type 2 diabetes.
Yet, with the right information, guidance and community, there is hope for disabled young adults who want to keep their weight down and minimize their risk for obesity-related health complications.
For example, a pilot program out of the University of Cincinnati found that “young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disabilities (ID) were able to lose or maintain their weight with a system of education and support in place.”
The year-long program included 17 young adults, six parents and 10 staff members who participated in a program that included lessons on healthy eating and exercising; and group sessions that used goal-setting to motivate participants.
The program taught participants about healthy eating using MyPlate, the United States Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines. The young adults were educated about the food pyramid and five food groups as well as portion size and the presence of vitamins and minerals in food. They were also coached to eat fewer unhealthy foods.
The exercise segment of the program included material about the health benefits of exercise. Participants were introduced to different types of exercise and helped to recognize how finding exercise they enjoyed makes it easier to commit to a fitness routine.
During the program, the young adults participated in group interviews where they shared their impressions of the program. They were weighed and measured at different intervals throughout the year. Parents were asked to complete surveys about their adult children’s progress. At the end of the program, two participants had lost significant amounts of weight while the others maintained their weights. According to News Medical Life Sciences, both participants and parents were satisfied with the results of the program.
While this program appears to have positive results, experts agree that the best time to familiarize children with ID and autism about nutrition and fitness are when they are young. According to a report by Bright Hub Education, “children with intellectual disabilities face certain nutritional issues as they reach adulthood, thus increasing the need for nutritional education. … Teaching students about nutrition in school can give them the tools they need to minimize their risks of these conditions by eating healthy.”
Bright Hub recommends that teachers use hands-on lessons to teach students about healthy eating. If classrooms have play kitchens, teachers are advised to use play food to teach nutrition. Teachers are also encouraged to teach students about the food pyramid. One effective multisensory teaching technique is to lay down “a large sized version of the food pyramid with the type of food and the number of servings written in bold in each section.” Students can then be asked to put the appropriate play food in each section of the food pyramid.” If play food isn’t available, teachers can use photos of food in the same way.
Parents can reinforce lessons at school by taking children grocery shopping and involving them with food preparation, menu planning, prep cooking and table setting. Children can also be encouraged to exercise along with their parents and siblings.