How Proper Nutrition Can Improve the Lives of People With Disabilities

How Proper Nutrition Can Improve the Lives of People With Disabilities

Healthy diets are a must for anyone who wants to make the most out of their lives. With a healthy diet, we have more energy and our mood, sleep, and life, in general, is just better. Just think how you feel after a day of three healthy, protein and vegetable-rich meals, compared to snacking on chips, candy, and fast food. And all of this goes double for people with disabilities.

While definitions vary, a disabled person is basically an individual who has a physical limitation that makes it difficult, or even impossible, to perform certain activities that make up our daily lives. Now, this limitation can include sensory deprivations such as blindness, deafness, brain or spinal injuries or things like being developmentally challenged, suffering from cerebral palsy, or a stroke.

Since people living with a disability already have their core problem, quality nutrition tends to get caught in the crossfire. Namely, being disabled often means simply finding it difficult to get around, to actually be active. And so, if you can’t really get any proper exercise done, you are at an even higher risk of nutrition-related issues, like obesity and malnutrition, and all the issues that arise from that. In case you haven’t noticed, all these problems are interlinked. They all make things worse and make it difficult for things to change. A chronic illness or disability makes it hard to exercise, which can lead to health problems. This same disability makes it difficult to keep a proper diet. A poor diet makes exercise more important, a lack of exercise means your diet at least needs to be clean, and issues with both can exacerbate and add to your existing condition. It’s a vicious cycle, it’s a self-referential loop.

The fact of the matter is that much emphasis has been given towards medication, physical therapy, massages, and exercises, all designed to assist the individual suffering from a disability. However, while this is all very useful, very little attention has been given to the diet and nutrition of said individual. And understand that a good diet can drastically improve the quality of life of a disabled person.

Obesity and weight fluctuations

Obesity is already an epidemic in first world countries. We lead sedentary lives, we move around less, we are addicted to calorically rich, nutritionally weak foods and snacks. We also cook less and eat out more. With our busy lives it’s much easier to simply buy something from the store, a bakery, fast food joint, and just get lunch over with. So, a person in a wheelchair may simply not wish to spend the time necessary to cook, or may find it rather difficult, and so just relies on whatever he or she can get their hands on in the store. 

This is a big problem, especially for paraplegics. Namely, doctors have shown that they often suffer very serious weight fluctuations. After a serious injury or medical disaster, the paraplegic loses a few kilos. Their body suffers a very serious stress reaction, caused by trauma coming about from the injury. This leads to their metabolism speeding up, trying to minimize and regulate the inflammation they are suffering from. Furthermore, shock and the injuries an individual has suffered can prevent them from eating, leading to a higher loss of weight.

However, going further, once the period after the injury has passed, things go in a different direction. They get in danger of actually putting on weight, for a variety of reasons. Sitting in a wheelchair all day long means they won’t be expending as much energy as they used to. Their muscles are being used less, some sadly not at all, which means they will be expending fewer calories. This means that even if the individual is eating less than what they did before their accident, they will still be gaining weight. This, as we’ve mentioned, exacerbates the issue, leading them to gain weight, robbing them of their quality of life even further. 

Now, these fluctuations are to a lesser or greater degree prevalent in most people with disabilities. As we’ve said before, a person with a disability is a person who simply finds it harder to do activities that are part of our daily lives. So a person who is wheelchair-bound may suffer the same issues, just to a greater degree, as far as diet is concerned when compared to a person who has suffered severe hearing loss.

What can be done?

Proper nutrition is about how many calories you ingest, and what is their source and “type”. Now, these are all very rough nomenclatures for a couple of basic principles. First of all, your body expends a certain amount of energy. The level of energy expended is based on how active you are, both in terms of our daily lives and in terms of working out, physical hobbies, things of that nature… This influences whether we will lose weight, gain weight, or maintain it. 

So, if you need 2500 calories to function, and you are ingesting more, you will gain weight. If you are, on average, ingesting less, you will lose weight. Pretty simple, no? Well, unfortunately, it’s not. Namely, the macronutrient profile of your meals influences whether that weight you gained is muscle, or if that weight you lost is just fat. So, are you ingesting a high protein, low-fat diet, or are you just subsisting on grilled cheese?

Finally, if you actually want to stay healthy, you also need to have as many vitamins and minerals in your diet as possible. So, you get the right amount of calories, get lots of protein and little fat, and keep those fats and carbs coming from healthy sources, like nuts, fatty fish, vegetables, fruit.

Now, there is one final caveat that needs to be mentioned in this section, before we elaborate further. Namely, disabilities vary greatly, from the type of lifestyle an individual can lead, right down to how their metabolism works. Another thing that can complicate the model above even more is the fact that some people may have certain dietary restrictions, due to the issue they have, or the medication they take. As with all things, you should speak with your physician in case there are some things you need to keep an eye on.

Calories in, calories out

So, the first thing you have to do is get the right amount of calories in you. If you suffered an injury recently, you need to figure out your new daily caloric maintenance level. There are many calculators online that will do the job, but you do need to try to be precise and clear when you’re using them. So, depending on the severity of your injury, this can impact the weight you input into the calculator, as well as your daily activity level. It will most likely be much lower than before, and that’s ok. 

If you feel the need to gain some weight, as opposed to maintaining it, add somewhere between 200 to 400 calories to your maintenance level. On the other hand, if you want to lose some weight, just subtract these numbers from your total.

However, exercise is an important part of this, and if you can burn off 200 to 400 calories per day (which is not easy), then you won’t really need to modify your caloric intake. However, the source of your calories still matters…

Vitamins, minerals, and macros

Namely, what actually keeps your bones, your skin, your immune system all strong, is the source of your calories. So, you need to have a lot of protein if you want to maintain or even grow some muscle. At the same time, you want your fat sources to come from fatty fish, nuts, and other healthy sources. Avoiding trans fats is very important. Try to cook with coconut oil, or olive oil, and avoid vegetable oil as much as you can. Minimize pastries, bread, and pasta, and get some egg whites, chicken, beef, and fish into your diet. 

You want to get as many minerals and vitamins as possible. Work on ingesting a lot of fruits and green, leafy vegetables. Get some dairy in you, since this can do wonders for your bones – you need your calcium.  You also need to get the right amount of fiber. Namely, you can get them through your diet, but understand that choosing a fiber supplement can also do wonders. Namely, fiber is necessary for a healthy digestive tract, and quite often digestive issues are caused by its deficiency.

The cost of sugar, salt, and fast food

Finally, there are some things that you simply don’t need. Soft drinks and sodas are never good for you, no matter if it’s a diet Coke or some off-brand “fruit” juice. You should also give your all in minimizing the amount of sugar and salt you ingest. Fast food is always a no-go because you will end up with a lot of empty calories, a lot of fat, and basically no quality micro and macronutrients. Also, note that fast food can put a much greater strain on your finances than regular home-cooked meals. Of course, there is nothing wrong in getting yourself a treat from time to time, but just try to minimize it as much as you can. 


There is no doubt that individuals with disabilities will have a hard time getting in shape, keeping their weight and health stable, and actually handling proper nutrition. However, there is also no doubt that proper nutrition is vital for their health. Anyone, from a wheelchair-bound paraplegic to a person with downs syndrome, will see substantial improvements in their health and wellbeing once they clean up their diet. If everything is done correctly, aided by professional advice, one can expect lower levels of obesity, more energy, and just a healthier, happier life. 

Author : Lena Hemsworth

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