UI study finds disabled adults face malnutrition

By Susan Szuch

A study by Ruopeng An, professor in community health, has found that physical, mental and financial barriers can all be obstacles in receiving proper nutrition for adults with disabilities.

The study indicated that approximately 10 to 25 percent of U.S. adults fall into one or more categories of disability, from activities of daily living to general physical activities.

In An’s 2014 paper, “Nutrition intake among U.S. adults with disabilities,” An compared self-reported food and supplement consumption data from surveys conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. The team then compared dietary intake and dietary guideline recommendations for people with and without disabilities.

The researchers found that adults overall do not consume enough nutrients, with the majority of people deficient in both potassium and fiber, among other nutrients.

One of the researchers who worked with An, Chung-Yi Chiu, a University professor in kinesiology and community health, noted that much of the study was a collaborative effort.

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Though her field of study is different than An’s, the two were able to bring together two different disciplines after she brought up the idea of studying the health effect that a proper diet has on adults with disabilities.

“My background is rehab psychology, (An’s) background is more like health policy analysis and the health economics issue. For me, I always focused on how I could promote — for people with disabilities — their health and well-being,” Chiu said.

For people with disabilities, An and Chiu found that they were far less likely to receive the recommended amounts of saturated fat, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and potassium.

Chiu believes that one of the reasons why this occurs is due to the cost of health care, as people who don’t earn much money will forfeit it, but when health care must be a priority, people often have to forfeit other things. One of the ways she explains the nutritional deficit is by comparing her own experiences in college to those of people who have to live on a right budget.

“When I was an international student, four to five years ago, one thing I can say for money is that I spent less money on food. So I believe this is a kind of common reasoning for people with (disabilities),” Chiu said. “When we have less money, the first thing I can say is that I will purchase cheaper food — or convenience food — and usually those foods were not quite healthy,”

Sophie Hoffman, a senior in AHS, found that the study confirmed things she had already predicted.

“Disabled adults face poverty, homelessness and other challenges, which are amplified by their disability. , I am not surprised that disabled adults have more difficulty attaining a healthy diet in addition to the other challenges they already face,” Hoffman wrote in an email.

Hoffman, like Chiu, believes that there many ways that those with disabilities can better attain nutritious food.

“In my opinion, we can provide vouchers for nutritious food for people with disabilities. In addition, we can provide transportation to grocery stores and ensure that grocery stores are better equipped to accommodate people with disabilities,” Hoffman said. “I think these measures can make nutritious food more accessible to disabled adults.”

Chiu said she hopes that, in the future, more public policy will address these issues in more ways than just financial grants, acknowledging that money is useless if you have no way to buy the food you need.

“We hope from the policy level they can educate the social welfare programs or people in a clinic environment, to educate or provide some substantial support … But they also should have some specific program,” Chiu said. “My idea would be that you can encourage those big supermarkets to have disability services. They can order online, and then they deliver. So they can have fresh food week by week, at least, rather than month by month.”

The research served as a way for Chiu to give others a wake-up call to the situation of adults with disabilities.

“Our study just wanted to show people that even for such a simple thing — eating, we need to eat everyday, right? — to support our life. (Adults with disabilities) already lose something,” Chiu said. “But when people see disability, usually, they will not think about, ‘Did you have a good healthy eating?’ They don’t care.”

Susan can be reached at [email protected].