Nutrition Planning for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities

September 17, 2019

Nutrition Planning

Since our founding more than 60 years ago, SCARC has provided an increasingly comprehensive range of services to individuals living with developmental disabilities and their families. Each one has been thoughtfully designed to nurture and care for those we serve in myriad ways. What you may not know, however, is that one of the ways we provide this support is through nutritional counseling and guidance. In fact, thanks to a generous annual grant provided by Selective insurance, we have a registered dietitian on staff here at SCARC!

Our nutritionist, Jenny Torino, plays a key role in ensuring the current and long-term health and well-being of the individuals we serve, and she offers nutritional recommendations and education not only to our group homes, but to the families of those we serve as well. So, we sat down with Jenny for a question-and-answer session in hopes of helping our families better understand what she does and how she can help.

Q: Why is nutrition planning so important for individuals living with developmental disabilities?

A: Food is powerful fuel for our bodies and has the ability to affect the way we think, act, and feel. It can keep us feeling our best or make us feel lousy, depending on what we eat. While every individual is different, those with developmental disabilities may be more likely to require additional consideration and planning when it comes to nutrition. For example, some individuals require additional nutrients or must avoid certain foods due to specific health conditions. At the same time, the textures, tastes, and appearance of certain nutritious foods can be off-putting to some people, especially those with sensory issues. When you consider that some of the individuals that we serve also have mobility issues—which can make it very difficult for them to get adequate exercise—it becomes clear that those living with developmental disabilities often have unique nutritional needs.

Q: Can you provide some more specific information about why nutrition planning for individuals with developmental disabilities can be so beneficial?

A: Individuals with developmental disabilities may suffer from what are known as “secondary conditions.” These are issues or challenges that can arise as a result of the primary disability (or disabilities) that a person already lives with. Or they might come about as side effects from treatments or medications. For example, an individual who uses a wheelchair as a primary means of mobility may suffer from chronic constipation or weight gain. Someone who can’t tolerate certain food types may develop diabetes due to poor diet. Coping with these secondary conditions can be very challenging indeed, and this can certainly affect a person’s quality of life. A proper diet can dramatically reduce or even eliminate certain secondary conditions as well as prevent new ones from developing. As a result, individuals may feel better and experience an increased sense of well-being.

Q: So, what is it that you do to provide nutritional support to those SCARC serves?

A: As a registered dietitian, I regularly provide services to the people who reside in the SCARC group homes. I provide guidance to the staff on menu planning and grocery shopping to ensure all individuals have access to healthy meals and snacks. I create seasonal menus and include heart -healthy recipes to support staff in making nutritious meals in the homes.

As I mentioned, it is very important for individuals with developmental disabilities to follow an overall healthy diet. In fact, nutrition planning for individuals with developmental disabilities can improve not just the quality of one’s life but also extend its length. Improvements in medical care have increased life expectancy, so that individuals who are living with developmental disabilities are now living well into middle age and beyond. As a result, preventing the chronic diseases associated with aging, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type II Diabetes, through controllable factors like nutrition have become increasingly important.

Q: Can you tell me more about staff training?

A: Staff training is a large part of my position at SCARC. We have many individuals on doctor-prescribed specialized diets, such as [the following]:

  • Low fat
  • Low cholesterol
  • Calorie Controlled
  • Diabetic
  • High or Low Fiber
  • Texture Modified

Texture-modified diets are tailored to the medical needs and preferences of individuals who have medical conditions that impair their swallowing ability or to those with differing sensory needs. I provide the staff not only with recipes and direction, but I also offer them education on why certain individuals have specific dietary needs and how their diets will improve their health and well-being. I am also available to do a targeted assessment if there is a nutrition-related concern with a specific individual.

Q: Can you provide a couple of examples of what sorts of issues you can address and how you provide support?

Absolutely. I can share the stories of two individuals I’ve helped here SCARC. Charlotte* is a woman SCARC serves who lives with epilepsy as well as Rett Syndrome, a neurologic and genetic disorder that creates feeding and swallowing challenges as well as gastrointestinal problems. As a result, Charlotte is on a texture-modified diet and receives hydration through a feeding tube. Charlotte had lost a significant amount of weight, and her food intake had become highly variable. I put Charlotte on a diet that included twice-daily tube feedings in addition to by-mouth nutrition. Charlotte began gaining weight and eventually regained her appetite. Slowly, Charlotte’s nurse and I were able to wean Charlotte off the tube feedings, and today, she is at a healthy weight and receiving all her nutrition by mouth!

Another individual who comes to mind is Matthew*, who lives with psychotic disorder and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). As a result of the dysphagia, he is on a pureed diet with thickened liquids. Unfortunately, as he’s gotten older, Matthew has developed a number of secondary medical conditions that have caused multiple hospitalizations, which have further affected his weight. I have been working closely with the SCARC group home where Matthew resides to help him gain weight. Over time, we have been able to increase his protein and calorie intake through dietary changes and supplements. As a result of these efforts, Matthew has gained ten pounds!

Q: Amazing! And because Charlotte doesn’t live in a group home, I assume you offer nutritional planning for individuals who don’t live in our group homes?

A: Yes, absolutely! Not everyone is aware of this, but I am here to provide nutritional guidance, planning, and support to every individual SCARC serves, as well as family members and others who are involved in their care. Anyone who is interested in talking with me about nutrition-related questions and concerns may contact me at 973-383-7442 ext. 234.

Accessing Nutrition Planning for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities

Now that you know that we have an outstanding registered dietician on staff, we hope you’ll feel free to reach out to Jenny for support and advice any time you need it! And, if you have questions about any of our services, we encourage you to reach out to Dr. Richard Lecher, our president and CEO, at any time.