Managing weight with a learning disability 2023

If you care for someone with a learning disability, they may need help and support to maintain a healthy weight.

People with learning disabilities are more likely to have problems with their weight.

Some people may be underweight because their disability means they have difficulty eating or swallowing, for example.

Others may be overweight because they have a condition that increases their risk of obesity, such as Down syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome.

How to check someone’s weight
Body mass index (BMI) is a useful measure of whether a person is at a healthy weight for their height.

You can check the BMI of someone you care for by using our BMI Healthy Weight Calculator.

If you are concerned about someone’s weight.
If you are concerned about the weight of someone you care for, try to help them understand the health risks of being underweight or overweight.

Discussions involving the person with a learning disability, carers and support workers are a good way to initiate lifestyle changes.

A GP can check for any medical problems that may be causing weight changes. For example, some medications can affect your weight.

A healthy diet for weight management
Food shopping: Help the person you care for plan their meals a week in advance. Help them make healthy choices using the Eat Well Guide and write a shopping list together. Using pictures is useful if they are shopping on their own and have trouble reading. Visit the Health Photo or Easy Health website for pictures of healthy foods.
Between meals: Encourage the person you care about to make healthier choices when buying snacks, for example, biscuits for fruit, or sugar-free squash or sugar-sweetened beverages for water.
Out and about: If the person you care for regularly eats at the canteen or day centre, encourage them to make healthy choices from the menu and ask the staff to include them. Help them.
Portion size: If the person you help eats large portions at mealtimes, encourage them to cut back a bit. Fill half of their plate with vegetables or salad at mealtimes.
Keep a record: If you think the person you care for is not eating properly, keep a record of what they eat and what they eat to get a picture of their eating habits.
If you need more help to help the person you care for manage their weight, visit the GP with them. The GP can give advice on physical activity and healthy eating.

Community weight management programs may also be available which are suitable for people with learning disabilities – ask a GP for more information.

Annual health checks
If the person you care for is on the GP’s learning disability register, they will be offered an annual health check. This is a good opportunity to talk about any problems with weight.

Tips for gaining weight
If the person you care for needs to gain weight, increasing their portion sizes may help. Or try serving small meals and snacks throughout the day.

If they still can’t eat much, or are underweight, you may need to offer special calorie-dense foods or drinks along with their regular diet. They also often contain additional vitamins and minerals.

A GP can advise you on calorie-dense foods and supplements, and prescribe them if necessary. They can also refer the person you care for if they need further support.

Get more tips for underweight children and underweight adults.

Physical activity and learning disabilities.
Exercise is key to weight control. It helps burn calories for those who need to lose weight. It can also stimulate the appetite of those who need to gain weight.

Ask the person you care for what activities they are interested in. Try to think of things that will fit into their routine and that they will enjoy.

If you can, organize some regular physical activity and help the person you care for to make sure it happens.

Mobile adults ages 19 to 64 are recommended to be active every day and do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as bicycling or brisk walking, at least 5 days a week.

This can be broken up into smaller amounts, for example, 3 short 10-minute walks.

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