National Consumers League

Obesity doesn't discriminate, but should preventive care be more personalized?

obesity.jpgIt isn’t news that obesity is an urgent problem in our country. According to a recent study by the CDC, over one third of US adults are obese. Education and health professionals have presented numerous strategies to combat this growing epidemic. Still, in order to enact real change, there needs to be a greater focus on how overweight and obesity affects specific populations.

Growing up with a brother with disabilities, I was exposed to the many challenges my family faced trying to help him develop healthy habits. Nutrition and weight were always difficult issues to manage. As a kid, my brother was very skinny. He was taking a medication that sped up his metabolism and suppressed his appetite. My parents would beg him to eat anything, even if the food was mostly fat and sugar. But as he got older, changed medications, and moved out of the house, he began to gain weight. Traditional weight loss methods have not worked for him. My brother faces a unique set of challenges, but he certainly isn’t alone. 

Obesity rates for adults with disabilities are 58 percent higher than they are for adults without disabilities. Additionally, obesity rates for children with disabilities are 38 percent higher than they are for children without disabilities. These numbers put adults and children with disabilities at a much higher risk of developing weight-related diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancers.

So why are these rates so high? As is the case with my brother, many people with disabilities are prescribed medications that cause sluggishness or weight gain. Also, any physical disability affecting motor or balance issues, sight, or stamina can make getting enough exercise challenging. Many people with disabilities are sensitive to the taste, color, texture, and smell of certain foods, which can lead to limited food repertoires.

Along with physical or medical challenges, there are lifestyle differences that make weight loss for adults with disabilities especially difficult.  Adults with disabilities often rely on support staff, family members, job coaches, and nurses to help them through their day. Many adults with disabilities also have little control over their finances. This means food is often chosen and cooked for them, usually the quickest and easiest options.

The disability population faces a range of obstacles when it comes to addressing the obesity epidemic. But it is not just people with disabilities that face unique challenges. In its polling, the CDC has outlined how socioeconomic status, sex, and ethnicity can all contribute to the prevalence of obesity. Once we are better able to understand the barriers to eating healthy and getting adequate physical exercise, we can tailor strategies to address the unique needs of differing populations.