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Why are people with learning disabilities getting fatter?


Individuals with learning disabilities are becoming more independent, but at the same time, they are getting fatter.


Is this success, or will it ultimately be a failure?

When studying learning disability nursing there are a few key statements we repeat, they remind us of our role, our goal, our purpose:

We empower choices, we promote independence, and we help individuals with learning disabilities develop skills for self-care and self-management by developing their confidence.

To put it simply, we want individuals to feel capable of leading their own lives and making their own goals. Equal access to healthcare, involvement in the community and acceptance are also focus points.

All fabulous goals, I hope you agree.

“There’s a flaw in our plan and it can easily be demonstrated by the growing waistlines of the learning disability community”

When I first visited Nottingham University for an open day (now, unbelievably, over three years ago) one of our facilitators said that our role as learning disability nurses would be to “put ourselves out of a job”, that we would work so hard with service users that they become independent and we are rendered unnecessary.  

I remember thinking how unusual that seemed, but when working with individuals with mild learning disabilities, it is a perfectly feasible goal.

However, there’s a flaw in our plan and it can easily be demonstrated by the growing waistlines of the learning disability community.

The prevalence of obesity in individuals with mild learning disabilities has increased dramatically over the past decade. Their waistlines continue to grow, but surely with support from healthcare professionals, this should not be the case?

“We can prevent lifestyle diseases taking claim over our service users, and it can be done so simply”

Independence is a futile reward for hard work if their health deteriorates so badly it is then taken away. Obesity claims lives, first through reducing the ability to participate in activities, then through deterioration in health. We can prevent lifestyle diseases taking claim over our service users, and it can be done so simply.

We are working on independence and choice, and trying to increase the happiness of people with learning disabilities, but sometimes I feel this is not supported enough by health promotion. We are not putting enough emphasis on education.

“As individuals I care for get fatter, through making choices about what they are going to eat for every meal and independently shopping for snacks and sugary drinks, will I have to congratulate them?”

Fewer people with learning disabilities access leisure facilities or participate in regular exercise, and evidence suggests individuals with learning disabilities are not impacted as heavily by the adverts that bombard us with information on healthy eating and the importance of physical activity.

It is our role as learning disability nurses to teach individuals with learning disabilities not just how to be independent, but how to live a healthy life and how to truly take care of the body they have.

We need to find every opportunity to help individuals with learning disabilities to participate in physical activity, to find a sport or exercise that they enjoy so they can take control of their own health and understand first-hand what it means to be healthy.


Lucy Cleden-Radford is Student Nursing Times’ learning disability branch editor



The collaboration of promoting independence and health could benefit the learning disability community greatly, and with simple steps we can help to prevent our service users from piling on unnecessary pounds.


Readers' comments (2)

  • "fatter" ?! What a terrible, offensive term to use. Why not "more overweight" or "leading unhealthy lifestyles". Shame on you.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • These individuals are gaining fat, therefore they are fatter. It is not meant as an offensive term, just a factual one. It is not weight that is nearly as dangerous for the body as the fat that is surrounding organs and preventing them from functioning effectively.

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