November 21, 2019

A Weighty Problem: Obesity and Children with Special Needs

When it comes to food, kids with special needs are a lot like Goldilocks and the Three Bears – they tend to either eat too much or too little, but very few of them eat “just right”. Get two parents of kids with special needs together, and it won’t be long before the gory details of food preferences and digestive problems are discussed.

The “too much” portion of this problem is the topic of an important new report released today by called, “Finding Balance: Obesity and Children with Special Needs”. In partnership with Special Olympics and Best Buddies International, the numbers are alarming:

• 80% of children with functional limitations on physical activity were either overweight or obese

• 50.8% of children in special education programs were either overweight or obese

• 32.9% of the youth athletes under age 22 in the Special Olympics program are obese and another 16.1% are overweight, so that almost half of their participants are at unhealthy weight.

There are many factors behind these statistics – besides the typical culprits of too much tempting junk food with high fat, sugar and salt along with a sedentary lifestyle, children with special needs (and their families) have a long list of other risk factors.

These include the standard use of candy or chips for rewarding desired behaviors, from potty training to getting kids to reduce their temper tantrums Then there’s genetic disorders as well as the problem that many medications prescribed for these kids such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and mood stabilizers all tend to increase appetites.

On top of those risk factors, kids with special needs are more socially isolated, not able to participate in most organized sports activities and spend much of their spare time engaged in passive activities such as television, video games and the computer. Plus, families raising kids with special needs are often stressed out with all extra challenges of difficult behavior and therapy/medical appointments, and end up eating fast food since it’s the easy and cheap choice.

“Finding Balance” points out that different diagnoses carry with them specific eating and weight issues. For example: “Children with Down syndrome tend to be shorter than other children, and studies indicate that their basal metabolic rate – the amount of calories the body burns at rest – is lower.” For kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), there are often sensory issues with many foods, and a tendency to eat from a very limited range of foods, which are usually the more fatty, starchy items. (We’ve had to hide desserts when Danny’s friends with autism come over).

In our case, Danny weighs in on the lower end of the scale and, due to his low muscle tone and sensory issues, still has trouble chewing many foods and favors easy to swallow options like yogurt, crunchy toast and cheese-flavored crackers. To make sure he is getting adequate nutrition, we supplement daily with 2-4 bottles of liquid nutritional drinks of the heavy strength variety. I wish he would eat a greater variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables, but it is a major battle to get him to eat something new or different.

Many families will find helpful information in the report, with its “toolbox” of ideas, tips and recommendations. One of the more interesting ideas is called “Food Chaining” which “which has the goal of preventing children from sensory overload. The goal is to start with a food that the child accepts, then progress from that food to another one.” With this strategy, you start out with something familiar to the child like French fries and slowly progress to a healthier alternative such as baked potatoes. 

Tomorrow, we will take hotdogs, a Danny food-group, and start working our way into grilled chicken….