How do you eat well?
This seemingly simple question can be a challenge for everyone, including people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, such as 30-year-old Rohan Das. Eight years ago, Rohan, who has Down syndrome, moved into JF&CS Supported Housing and has been living in his own apartment with a roommate, working at a job, and enjoying a fulfilling volunteer schedule. Yet Rohan’s parents, Sunitha Das and Das Narayandas of Newton, have had an ongoing concern that is shared by many parents of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities who live independently – how best to help him maintain healthy eating habits. “One of the biggest challenges when he moved is just planning everyday meals,” said Sunitha.
“Close to 150 people with a variety of developmental and intellectual disabilities are participants of the JF&CS Supported Housing program and meals are a constant challenge,” said Sara Freedman, Associate Division Director, Programs, Services for People with Disabilities.
A new joint venture between two JF&CS programs, Hunger and Nutrition and Supported Housing, will promote healthy households.
“Making meals easier for staff and exciting for residents will ultimately make a positive impact on health and well-being,” said Sara.
The program will be piloted in several residences this fall, providing intensive training for housing staff on a full slate of healthy eating touch points including grocery shopping, food preparation, menu planning, and easy recipes, all with the goal of helping to create and maintain a healthy communal food culture. “We will be working closely with residential staff members who support the clients so that the food environment promotes health,” said Alison Kaufman, Director of JF&CS Hunger and Nutrition and one of two registered dietitians on staff.
According to Alison, there are a number of health concerns that become exacerbated when living away from home for the first time and making one’s own food choices, all while there is easier access to fast food. In addition to the common struggle to refrain from consuming large quantities of food, people with developmental and intellectual disabilities often have high rates of diabetes and obesity and certain populations have specific food-related challenges. “With autism, there may be limited palettes, strong aversions to unfamiliar food, and food selectivity issues,” explained Alison. “Those with Down syndrome may have issues with low muscle tone and may have trouble maintaining a healthy weight because it is harder to be physically active.”
Research shows that leadership from registered dietitians can have a strong impact on the health of people who live in residences, although continuity can be a challenge. “What is special and exciting about this program is that it will be a permanent component of the housing program, and there will be a regular presence at the households,” said Alison. “While food prep is taking place, we can provide coaching and motivational activities for the residents. If they have never tried to chop broccoli, we will show them how and they will be more invested in trying if they are involved in making an actual dish. We will be building relationships with staff and residents to help keep them on track.”
The close involvement of staff will allow food to be individually tailored to residents and residences. Nursing staff will be able to track health outcomes such as cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure.
“One of the most exciting parts of this program is that we will be able to affect change across the whole program,” said Alison. “Everybody deserves the chance to be healthy.”
Sunitha and Das, whose generous donation is supporting these efforts, are thrilled that the program is attempting to make an important difference by helping Rohan and other residents plan for meals, learn to budget, and make good choices about food variety, quantities, and portion sizes in order to be healthy for the long run. Additional funding would allow us to bring this program to all of our residences.
“Our son is going to be a direct beneficiary but it is so much larger,” said Sunitha. “It will be a dream come true for all the residents.”
Tips for Healthy Eating
These tips for healthy eating from JF&CS Director of Hunger and Nutrition Alison Kaufman are among the strategies that will be incorporated in the new program:
- Whole grain crackers and banana smeared with peanut butter, berries with plain yogurt and crushed pecans, or cut vegetables and whole wheat pita with hummus are snack ideas that are nutritious and satisfying. By pairing a fruit or vegetable with a whole grain and a lean protein, snacks will keep you fueled longer because fruit and vegetables fill you up, whole grains give your body the energy you need right now, and protein keeps you feeling satisfied longer.
- Reducing food waste can help pad your food budget. Dedicating a visible space on a refrigerator shelf for items that need to be used keeps items that are near expiration within view, reminding you to use them as soon as possible in upcoming meals throughout the week. It can even help with meal planning, as you take stock of items you already have available and consider ways to use up food already in your refrigerator.
Originally posted on the JF&CS blog.
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