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Managing weight with a learning disability

If you care for a person with a learning disability, they may need help and support to stay a healthy weight.

People with a learning disability are more likely to have problems with their weight.

Some people may be underweight because their disability means they have difficulties with eating or swallowing, for example.

Others may be overweight because they have a condition that increases their risk of obesity, such as Down's syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome.

How to check someone's weight

Body mass index (BMI) is a useful measure of whether someone is a healthy weight for their height.

You can check the BMI of someone you care for by using our BMI healthy weight calculator.

If you're concerned about someone's weight

If you're concerned about the weight of the person you care for, try to help them understand the health risks of being either underweight or overweight.

A conversation that includes the person with learning disabilities, carers and support workers is a good way to begin making lifestyle changes.

A GP can also check for any medical issues that may be causing weight changes. Some medicines can affect your weight, for example.

Healthy eating for weight management

  • Shopping for food: support the person you care for to plan their meals a week in advance. Help them to make healthy choices using the Eatwell guide and write a shopping list together. Using pictures is helpful if they are shopping on their own and have trouble reading. Visit A Picture of Health or the Easyhealth website for pictures of healthy foods.
  • Between meals: encourage the person you care for to make healthier choices when buying snacks, for example, by swapping biscuits for fruit, or sugary drinks for sugar-free squash or water.
  • Out and about: if the person you care for eats out regularly in a canteen or at a day centre, encourage them to make healthy choices from the menu and ask staff to support them with this.
  • Portion size: if the person you support eats large portions at mealtimes, encourage them to reduce these slightly. Fill up to half their plate with vegetables or salad at mealtimes
  • Keep records: if you feel the person you care for is not eating properly, keep records of the food they eat and the foods they do not, to build up a picture of their eating habits.

If you need more support in helping the person you care for to manage their weight, go with them to see a GP. The GP can advise on physical activity and healthy eating.

There may also be community weight management programmes available that are suitable for people with learning disabilities – ask a GP for more information.

Annual Health Checks

If the person you look after is on the GP's learning disability register, they will be offered an Annual Health Check. This is a good opportunity to talk about any issues with weight.


Self-refer for help with your weight

If the person you care for needs help to manage their weight, you might be able to refer them directly to services that can help, without seeing a GP.

To find out if there are any services in their area:

  • ask the reception staff at their GP surgery
  • check their GP surgery’s website
  • contact their integrated care board (ICB) – find their local ICB
  • search online for NHS weight management services near where they live

Tips for gaining weight

If the person you look after needs to gain weight, increasing their portion sizes may help. Or try offering smaller meals and snacks throughout the day.

If they still cannot eat much, or their weight is low, you may need to offer special calorie-enriched foods or drinks, as well as their usual diet. These often contain extra vitamins and minerals, too.

A GP can advise you on calorie-enriched foods and supplements, and prescribe them if necessary. They can also refer the person you look after to a dietitian if they need more support.

Get more advice for underweight children and underweight adults.

Physical activity and learning disabilities

Exercise is key to managing weight. It helps burn calories for people who need to lose weight. It can also stimulate appetite for people who need to gain weight.

Ask the person you look after what activities they're interested in. Try to think of ones that will fit into their routine and that they enjoy.

If you can, organise some regular physical activity and support the person you care for to make sure it happens.

Mobile adults aged 19 to 64 are recommended to be active every day and do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, such as cycling or fast walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week, such as running.

Special Olympics Great Britain helps people with learning disabilities get involved in sports – see the Special Olympics Great Britainir Facebook page.

More information

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Page last reviewed: 14 November 2023
Next review due: 14 November 2026