People with learning disabilities may benefit from body awareness groups

By Liz Offen, PhD
Birmingham Psychology Services for People with Learning Disabilities, Birmingham Community HealthCare Trust, Birmingham, UK

Compared to the general population, people with learning disabilities (LD) are more likely to have poor nutrition. Current approaches for helping people with LD to lose weight include reduction of calorie intake, health education, and encouraging increased physical activity. While such strategies appear effective in the short term, weight loss is often not sustained over time.

What did you do in your research?
We based a body awareness group on the ‘Health at Every Size’ model, which takes behavioral and emotional factors into consideration when looking at weight loss strategies. Our group ran for 9 weeks, and four adults with LD who were overweight and unhappy attended the group. People talked about how they felt about their bodies, their relationship with food, the differences between emotional and physical eating, and things that made it difficult for them to engage in a healthy lifestyle.

What did you find out?
Group members had difficulty distinguishing between physical and emotional signs of hunger. Clients mostly ate in response to social or emotional triggers, feeling they had little control over what or how much they ate. They had good understanding of healthy and unhealthy foods but found it hard not to give in to cravings. They seemed to have a distorted view of their ideal body size, and described photographs of thin people as ‘happy’ and overweight people as ‘sad and unhappy.’ and ‘don’t care for themselves’. Participants found it difficult to think of positive things about their lives, and more easily came up with negative thoughts.

What are the take-home messages?
The ‘Health at Every Size’ model promotes acceptance of different body sizes and recognition of eating in response to internal cues. Weight loss programs for people with learning disabilities should help people understand the social and emotional factors affecting their eating, as well as addressing an individual’s perceived control over their eating. Self-esteem and body image should also be addressed, to help people feel happier with their body size and shape.

To learn more about these findings contact Rose Tomlins.

Full Journal Article
Rubbert, S., Bisnauth, R., & Offen, L. (2014). Establishing a body awareness group for adults with learning disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42, 43–49.