Projects seek to improve obesity rate among Utahns with disabilities

Aug 29, 2011
Broccoli is spooned onto a baked potato.
Making simple, healthy choices can make a difference.

In Utah, adults with disabilities are 68 percent more likely to be obese than their peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a number that people working with the CPD want to improve.

Two projects connected to the Center for Persons with Disabilities have taken on obesity. Though these projects were run separately, both focused on training as a way to boost the health of people with developmental disabilities in group homes. People involved in both studies agreed that management should be on board when it comes to making healthy changes.

Nutrition training was a lot more effective in homes where management was committed to the idea, said Amanda Panting, a graduate student who worked with the Effectiveness of an Adapted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Nutrition Education Curriculum for Adults with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities study. The project was headed up by Dr. Nedra Christensen, one of the CPD’s faculty fellows and a professor involved in the URLEND program.

With the help of Barbara Fiechtl, another CPD faculty fellow, the project developed a curriculum about nutrition, adapted for people with developmental disabilities. In an initial pilot program, nutrition and food science seniors taught a specially-adapted curriculum to group homes. In the main study the researchers changed their target audience when they realized that group home managers were in a better position to influence their clients’ health habits. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program workers then taught nutrition classes to the group home managers, who reviewed the adapted curriculum and passed it on to their clients.

Red onion is chopped, on its way to becoming salsa.

Group home staff members know the individual interests and needs of the people they serve. They also direct the meal planning, the teaching and the grocery shopping. They decide which rewards and incentives are used for people in the program. Is a trip to McDonald’s the ultimate outing? Is good behavior rewarded with sugar? Do group home staff members model good eating and exercise habits?

It’s something Jeff Sheen thought about as he taught a healthy lifestyles curriculum to people in  group homes around the state. (It was also presented to young adults in the CPD's own post-secondary PEER program, who are pictured in this article.) The Healthy Lifestyles project targeted adults with disabilities and emphasized a number of different approaches to good health, including nutrition, exercise and healthy social development. One young man who received the training lost 70 pounds. While he did a lot more than attend the training, the classes did reinforce the things he was doing to improve his health.

Both Sheen and Panting said they watched for small improvements—clients who chose water or milk over soda, for example.

Changes need to happen, Dr. Christensen said in an interview earlier this year. America’s obesity epidemic is hitting people with disabilities especially hard, heaping additional health concerns on a population that is already often dealing with special health care needs.

Her project is the first in Utah to develop a nutrition-specific curriculum for people with disabilities.

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