If 14-year-old Daniel Morson had his way, he would eat chicken fingers for breakfast every day. His mom, Jan Morson of Vestavia Hills, does her best to serve healthy foods to Daniel, who has Down syndrome.
“It’s a struggle,” says Morson. “His diet is limited to the same 10 foods. He’s never liked mushy foods like oatmeal, rice or grits, and he won’t eat vegetables like peas or beans as I wish he would.”
Jan discovered Daniel does like fruit, so she makes him a smoothie for breakfast with strawberries, milk and a few spinach leaves snuck in there to provide some vegetables.
“He can’t even taste the spinach,” says Morson. “I just have to be careful not to make it too green or let him see me put it in the blender.”
Persons with Down syndrome have the highest obesity rates of any intellectual disability group, says Laura Vogtle, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“This group struggles with oral motor issues, their tongues are wider, they have trouble with chewing and have gastrointestinal problems,” says Vogtle. “They tend to prefer the same, higher-fat foods such as fried foods and sweets and won’t advance to more textured foods.”
Vogtle saw the need to work with families to develop food and physical activity modifications to improve weight and activity outcomes for adolescents with Down syndrome. She received a $45,000 Health and Fitness for People with Developmental Disabilities grant from the Alabama Council for Developmental Disabilities.
Vogtle is teaming up with other faculty members in the School of Health Professions, including registered dietitian Susan Miller, M.S., an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition, and Haiyan Qu, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the Department of Health Services Administration. To identify participants and to share resources with families, Vogtle is partnering with Parent Advocates Down Syndrome (PADS).
“The parents will work with us through focus groups to identify existing barriers and successful strategies that have worked for them,” says Vogtle.
PADS Executive Director Susan Tolle says this is an area that has not received much attention but is greatly needed.
Helping people with Down syndrome and their caregivers learn more about strategies to improve nutrition and physical activity should have the effect of “promoting personal health awareness, conscientiousness and care, and increasing creativity for how a family approaches nutrition,” says Tolle. It will also “become a proactive preparation for an improved quality of life and well being as they mature,” she says.
Vogtle will offer a 16-week program for adolescents with Down syndrome and a concurrent parent group to create a program from these focus groups. First-year OT students and a nutrition graduate student will develop daily logs for the children to post their physical activity and what they ate. Community programs and activities around Birmingham will be ranked and these resources and others will be developed for parents and posted on the PADS website.
Tolle says there are several barriers when it comes to physical activities.
“Besides time and cost, the availability of activities that incorporate the interests of the child, include social aspects and balance their physical skill level with that of typical children can be hard to find,” says Tolle.
Jan Morson will say her son is not the norm for children with Down syndrome. After having a tonsillectomy at age three, which is common for children who have Down syndrome, he became very active, eventually taking gymnastics and karate and maintains a healthy weight. But she still has some battles with Daniel.
“Once he gets a craving for something, such as candy or bread, I have to hide it,” says Morson.
“Jan is someone that other parents can learn from about what works to keep their child healthy and active,” says Vogtle.
If the program is successful, Vogtle could receive more funding to eventually establish the program in other areas in the state.