Nutrition Tips for People with Developmental Disabilities

Man with a developmental disability smiling while sitting at a plated table

It’s widely understood that proper nutrition supports general wellness and disease prevention. But nutrition also impacts speech, motor skills and much more.

Nutrition recommendations for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are similar to those for the general population, according to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Still, we know the I/DD community often experiences more challenges than others in meeting such recommendations

The results can be detrimental. Poor diet can lead to obesity and illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension.

Research conducted with adults who have I/DD by the Montana Disability and Health Program shows that diet affects many of the most frequently reported secondary conditions, such as fatigue, weight problems, and constipation or diarrhea. Good nutritional habits can improve these secondary conditions, prevent obesity and other illnesses, and positively impact brain development, speech articulation, behavior, and motor skills. 

Here are 9 easy tips you can use to improve the nutrition in your home

Eat the rainbow:  The more color you add to your diet in the form of fruit and vegetables, the better for you. Talking about it as a rainbow may be an easier way to encourage a variety in your home. Planting a garden and growing your own rainbow may help develop a deeper commitment.

Drink lots of water: An average adult needs eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. To start, try replacing sports drinks and soda with water and keep a pitcher on the dinner table for easy refills. Don’t like the taste? Squeeze a slice of fresh lemon or lime to add flavor. 

Control sugar, salts and preservatives: Junk food and artificial ingredients are more difficult for your organs to process and over time could lead to obesity and other health conditions. Keep a food journal to bring awareness to the amount of your intake and work to reduce it.

Know your medication: It’s important to remember that some prescription medications can interact with certain nutrients. This is especially common with anticonvulsants, stimulant medications, medications for treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease, and antipsychotics. Talk to your healthcare partners and be informed.

Change it up: You may find taking certain steps will allow people with disabilities more eating independence.  Modifying textures, integrating nutritional supplements and using self-feeding equipment are a few examples. Talk to your health care partners first to be sure it’s safe for your situation. 

Target three meals and regular snacks:  By eating smaller, regular meals and healthy snacks, you are creating a predictable pattern that’s easier to follow and you will be less likely to overeat. Cheese and crackers, yogurt smoothies, carrots and dip, raisins and nuts and fresh fruit are all healthy snack options worth considering.

Slow down: By eating slowly, you have more time to enjoy your food and your body has time to process it.  Taking the time to socialize while you eat, not only helps you slow down, it also allows you to build relationships with those close to you.

Two are better than one: Whether meal planning, shopping, or prepping in the kitchen, involve others in the process.  Give choices and create a weekly menu that all can reference during the week. By being involved, you should see a greater willingness to try new things at the dinner table. 

Make gradual change: If you slowly incorporate one tip into your meal planning here and there, and a little more movement into your daily routine, you might be surprised at what a difference it makes and how the changes take hold over time.

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