Tackling obesity in people with learning disabilities

Rebecca Haythorne says carers need training to help solve this lifestyle problem

Rebecca Haythorne says carers need training to help solve this lifestyle problem

The UK has one of the highest incidences of obesity in the world, costing the NHS more than £5 billion a year, a figure that is expected to swell to £9.7 billion by 2050 (Public Health England 2013).

A report by the Department of Health (DH) ranked England as one of the most obese nations in Europe, with 60% of the population either overweight or obese, higher than most other developed countries (DH 2011).

Obesity-related conditions account for 5%-6% of the total health budget, placing a significant burden on NHS resources (DH 2011). In 2010, data from the Health Survey for England showed that obesity rates among adults with disabilities were 57% higher than those without (Public Health England 2013).

Spreading information

Over the years, interventions (Spanos et al 2013), government agendas (DH 2010) and easy read leaflets (NHS Choices 2015) have been designed to help people with learning disabilities gain knowledge about making healthier lifestyle choices.

Despite these efforts, obesity rates are not falling, and this is partly because they have been targeted at the wrong people. We can give individuals with learning disabilities all the tools in the world to make healthier lifestyle choices, but if their carer makes choices for them, has no understanding of health promotion or is confined by time and money restrictions, nothing will change (The Scottish Government 2013).

Barriers to weight loss

The Royal College of Nursing (2013a) suggests that individuals’ environments can make it difficult for them to maintain healthy lifestyles. Recent guidance from NHS Choices (2015) suggests that lack of support and knowledge offered by carers to help individuals make sense of the information they receive is a key factor in unhealthy lifestyles.

Everyone has the right to decide what they eat and how much activity they choose to do, as long as they are not causing significant harm to themselves or others (Royal College of Nursing 2013b).

We must give carers the tools and skills needed to help people make more informed and healthier decisions in a fun and accessible way (Lillywhite and Haines 2010).

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapists (OTs) are in a good position to improve the situation: they can give carers practical advice and encourage them to work collaboratively with those they care for, a technique which has proven to be effective in other areas of care (The Health Foundation 2014).

OTs can provide well-planned and organised interventions that can be adapted to work for those with learning disability, and their carers. Interventions can include health promotion and education that takes into account people's food preferences, as well as the development of bespoke physical activity regimens.

Carers should be urged by OTs to work collaboratively with the person in their care to draw up weekly food shopping lists and cooking schedules. Through this we can help carers to support individuals in becoming independent and developing life skills so that they can regain control of their weight (College of Occupational Therapists 2015).

About the author

Rebecca Haythorne is an MSc occupational therapy student at Sheffield Hallam University


College of Occupational Therapists (2015) What Do Occupational Therapists Do? COT, London.

Department of Health (2010). Valuing People Now. DH, London.

Department of Health (2011). Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A Call to Action on Obesity in England. DH, London.

The Health Foundation (2014) Person-centred Care Made Simple. The Health Foundation, London.

Lillywhite A, Haines D (2010) Occupational Therapy and People with Learning Disabilities: Findings from a Research Study. College of Occupational Therapists, London.

NHS Choices (2015) Managing Weight with a Learning Disability.

Public Health England (2013) Obesity and Disability: Adults. PHE, London.

Royal College of Nursing (2013a) Meeting the Health Needs of People with Learning Disabilities: RCN Guidance for Nursing Staff. RCN, London.

Royal College of Nursing (2013b) Making it Work: Shared Decision-making and People with Learning Disabilities. RCN, London.

Spanos D, Melville C, Hankey C (2013) Weight management interventions in adults with intellectual disabilities and obesity: a systematic review of evidence. Journal of Nutrition, 12, 132.

The Scottish Government (2013) The Keys to Life: Improving Quality of Life for Individuals with Learning Disabilities. The Scottish Government, Edinburgh.



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