An innovative project, aimed at improving health outcomes for people with learning disabilities and autism through nutrition, is having a transformative effect on the lives of people in Wales.
The Nutrition and Wellbeing Project, developed by not-for-profit support provider Dimensions, provides one-to-one coaching with menu plans and nutritional advice specifically tailored to individual preferences, empowering people with learning disabilities and autism to maintain a healthy lifestyle and diet. In addition, the programme gives support workers a greater understanding of how to manage health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease through diet and exercise.
Launched in November 2020, the project focuses on the importance of gradually introducing and embedding healthy habits, unique to each person, to reduce the chance of weight-related diseases.
Tackling health inequality
People with learning disabilities and autism often face poorer health outcomes than the general population, with recent data showing that women with a learning disability die on average 27 years younger, and men 22 years younger than the general population. Specifically, people with a learning disability are also more likely to have problems maintaining a healthy weight.
Responding to these persisting health inequalities, Dimensions’ project takes a proactive approach to supporting people’s health, recognising that small changes can help prevent many health issues from arising in the first place.
The absence of a healthy diet and exercise can often exacerbate poor health, and impact on every aspect of a person’s daily life, such as sleep and mobility. By focusing on achievable lifestyle changes and working with people to gradually implement more healthy habits into their daily routines, the project is already yielding promising results.
The project in action
The project wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of dedicated volunteers, many of whom are nutrition students or restaurant chefs. Most volunteers work with people supported by Dimensions and their support teams on a one-to-one basis, developing recipes, meal plans and sharing nutrition advice. This individualised approach means the resources can be highly personalised and address the specific needs of each person.
Since the project began in November, Dimensions has recruited 30 nutrition volunteers, who have directly supported 44 people.
Paul Bown, Dimensions’ Volunteer Officer, is responsible for co-ordination of the project across Dimensions Group. He has already seen its real-life benefits:
“The project has been incredibly successful and is moving at a pace we were not initially expecting. There’s been lots of interest both within Dimensions as well as among volunteers.
“Support workers and managers want what’s best for people and want to make sure they’re supporting them in the best way they can. The project is helping everyone move towards a proactive approach of taking care of people’s health.”
For Paul, the key to the project’s success is its focus on making effective changes. The goal of the project is not purely solely weight-loss, but instead the implementation of long-lasting and sustained new habits which enable people to lead healthier and happier lives.
“If a person eats take-away chicken and chips a couple of times a week and if in six-month’s time we can change that habit, so they eat real chicken and cooked potatoes with some vegetables, that’s a real success.”
One of the people who took part in the programme is Natasha (29), who Dimensions supports in Cardiff. She had gained some weight during lockdown but thanks to a nutrition and exercise plan developed by volunteer, Nazmin (27), Natasha lost over two stone.
During the first meeting with Natasha and her team, Nazmin was informed that Natasha was pre-diabetic. This helped inform Nazmin’s approach and she worked alongside Natasha’s support team, sharing resources on diabetes and creating a low-sugar diet plan in order to help Natasha make healthier choices.
“The plan had three main goals: stay hydrated by drinking two litres of water a day, eat five fruits and vegetables a day, and do 30 minutes of exercise a day. It was really rewarding to see how effective this was for Natasha. She ended up losing more weight than we expected!”
“I’m very pleased with the progress Natasha has made. Natasha tells me that she feels better every day as a result of her weight loss. The biggest difference has been the impact on the staff; their knowledge and understanding has increased, and they feel that they can support Natasha and the other people in the house better. That’s a tremendous result.”
Nazmin is one of the student volunteers and is doing a part time Master’s in nutrition. Volunteering for the programme has been mutually beneficial to both Natasha and Nazmin, as she has been able to use the knowledge from her degree and put it into practice.
“I feel much better in myself and I’m also proud of myself. I’ve enjoyed being involved.”
Over the next year, Dimensions plans to scale up the project to support 100 people by the end of 2021. In addition to one-to-one support, Dimensions, together with volunteers, is developing resources and training to educate support workers on different aspects of nutrition, with focus on specific health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
“It’s all about giving people tools and as much knowledge as possible, to help them support people to make informed choices about their diets and steer them in the right direction to help develop better habits. It’s those small steps that can make a huge difference.”
 Learning Disabilities Mortality Review 2019 Annual Report