People with learning disabilities are more likely to have dietary patterns that lack essential nutrients and associated health conditions than the general population. 

As a result of this, a new project led by Lynette Harper, has developed an online resource for people with learning disabilities, allowing them to follow along with cooking videos and access easy-read recipes. 

The other resource developed by Harper and her team, is a training programme for care-givers, learning disability nurses and other members of NHS staff on how implement health-eating initiatives, which is co-presented by people with learning disabilities themselves. 

Why are people with learning disabilities more likely to have poor dietary habits?

Previous studies have found that people with learning disabilities are more likely to have an inadequately balanced diet than the general population. In fact, 37% of people with learning disabilities are obese, compared with 30% of people without learning disabilities. 

The reasons for this are multi-faceted, but include: difficulty accessing healthy foods, a lack of knowledge about nutrition (and therefore higher intake of processed foods and a lack of fruit and vegetables), a lack of knowledge about food preparation skills and poor health literacy. 

Furthermore, many people with learning disabilities have oral motor difficulties, frequent choking episodes, dental issues and food allergies which can also limit the types of food they can eat. 

Interventions are therefore needed to support those who have poor dietary habits, using a multifaceted approach which considers the needs of the individual. 

Cook-along videos for people with learning disabilities

The research project took into account these considerations, working with people with learning disabilities to develop the resources. 

They found that follow-along, real-time cooking videos, role modelling, and engagement, encouragement and reinforcement were the most effective ways to encourage healthy eating. 

The researchers also noticed that often cooking resources for people with learning disabilities fail to address the risks associated with cooking at home, for example the cross-contamination risk when cooking with raw chicken. 

These issues were taken into account and the researchers made sure to only include recipes which were safe to cook at home, while also encouraging frequent hand washing to encourage the upkeep of good hygiene standards.

A training programme to show staff how to implement healthy-eating initiatives

The training programme focused on intervention strategies that staff could use to encourage healthy eating. 

The researchers provided a one-day training workshop for staff working with people with learning disabilities, which was co-presented by people with learning disabilities. This allowed staff to have informal conversations and see how "nudges" could be used in practice. 

For example, staff were advised to suggest using smaller plates for meals, reminding the person about the benefits of healthy food, and linking healthy snacks with activities, to nudge the person to make healthier choices. 

The researchers say the workshop revealed that staff working in GP surgeries need more knowledge and support around communicating with people with learning disabilities and applying reasonable adjustments to patients in this population. 

The project overall has shown how essential it is that health professionals adjust their usual ways of working to consider the needs and wishes of people with learning disabilities. To do this, they must support the successful implementation of interventions that promote engagement with a healthy lifestyle.