Mary Hunt set up her own firm encouraging people with learning disabilities to live healthier lifestyles after watching son Barry Ward, who has Down’s syndrome, struggle to walk on holiday when his weight ballooned.
By the end of 2013, Barry was finding it a challenge to walk more than 30 yards and was twice admitted to hospital with suspected heart attacks after Christmas.
Though medics told Barry's mother, Mary Hunt, that heart problems were common in people with Down’s, she refused to accept his declining health as inevitable.
Instead, Mary, a nurse who runs home care company Beyea Care, convinced him to try diet classes.
Mary says the classes have transformed her son’s confidence and enabled him to shed much of the weight that was threatening his health.
So successful has the regime been, that together Mary and her son set up their own community interest company. The firm, Barry’s Journey, introduces others with learning disabilities to the benefits of diet and exercise.
The regime allows people to eat their favourite foods cooked in a healthy way
Mary, 58, from Ipswich, said: “Somebody did say to me that Barry, having Down’s syndrome, would never understand the rationale of healthy eating and dieting.
“But he has done. He knows what foods are not good, because he has been doing it so long and, of course, I think we’ve changed some of his habits.”
Menus on the Barry’s Journey diet are “syn free”, meaning people can eat as much as they like of their favourite food provided it’s cooked in a healthy way.
With help from support workers they are encouraged to cook using equipment like fat-reducing grills, slow cookers and air fryers, which use less oil than deep fryers.
Mary added: “We find out what their favourite food is and, if it’s a burger and chips, we then teach them how to cook that syn-free.”
For beef this means using meat that is 5% fat or lower and prepared with a low-calorie cooking spray, or in a slow cooker with tinned tomatoes.
The diet also encourages people to learn to make their own sauces, like mayonnaise and ketchup, to reduce the sugar content.
The odd treat is allowed, provided it’s not excessive. And alongside the diet is an individually tailored exercise programme with one-to-one support at DW Fitness.
Barry said he feels "much better" since starting the diet and exercise regime
“If we go into a residential home we will help the support worker and the client to identify what foods they will snack on and then we’ll probably give them zero to five points, because you’re allowed up to 15 points per day. It’s basically to make a diet enjoyable,” Mary added.
Health problems like heart defects and an underactive thyroid gland are more common in people with Down’s syndrome, who have a life expectancy of between 50 and 60.
An underactive thyroid means the body is slower to use up energy and leaves people with Down’s syndrome more vulnerable to weight gain.
Barry had a slight heart murmur and infantile hepatitis, an inflamed liver, when he was a baby. He later overcame these health problems.
Before persuading Barry to tackle his weight, Mary admits her son always “loved his food”. And his appetite for junk food, like burgers, chips, sausages and McDonald’s, meant he was getting “bigger and bigger”.
At his heaviest, Barry, who is 4ft 10ins tall, was 14 stone. Before a recent trip to Centre Parcs, when he came off the diet to relax, he weighed 11 stone 3lbs.
Mary insists the diet and exercise regime is not something she has forced on her son and Barry himself says he’s fully on board, saying he has been “going to the gym a lot” to “lift weights”.
Asked what the food was like on the diet, 31-year-old Barry said: “Good. I like it.” He added that he feels “much better” since starting the diet.
He lives in supported accommodation where staff members help him grow and pick fresh herbs from a greenhouse to include in the diet.
Mary says the company is now taking off and they are working in learning disabilities residential homes in Bury St Edmunds and Norwich.
She added: “Word is getting about and there does seem to be a huge need for it. If they’re interested we go and do an overhead presentation of how Barry’s Journey will work.”
To find out more visit www.barrysjourney.co.uk