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Presented at the Annual Public Health Conference Scotland in Aviemore, November 2014

You Too Can Be a Food Dude: Changing the Eating Habits of Children with Disabilities in Wales and Scotland!

Increasing the intake of fruit and veg in Special Schools

Healthy eating is especially difficult to achieve with children with intellectual disabilities, who often show change-resistant behaviours such as idiosyncratic eating patterns and reluctance to try new foods. This is why we had been working with Special Schools in England and Wales to apply and modify Food Dudes Programme to suit their environment.

Although it is known that children with disabilities are more likely to develop diet-related health problems and obesity than their peers in mainstream schools, they have been entirely overlooked in the existing research - until now. Our Food Dudes healthy eating programme - an evidence based behaviour change intervention that produces large and long lasting improvements in diets of primary aged children - was modified for use with children with intellectual disabilities, including Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Over a number of years, we have systematically monitored its implementation and evaluated its effectiveness in a number of schools in England and Wales.

In a controlled trial in North Wales, 250 pupils in two Special Schools received the Food Dudes Programme, whilst 260 pupils in a matched control school received the same foods and measurements but no intervention. Direct observations were used to measure children's target food consumption over 4 days at baseline, after intensive Phase 1 of the intervention and at 2-month follow up. We recorded statistically significant and substantial increases in children's fruit and vegetable consumption and decreases in their consumption of sweet and fatty foods in the interventions schools immediately after Phase 1 and at follow up (p<.0001 for all categories) compared to baseline and to the control school. Dietary improvements were seen regardless of children's age, sex, diagnosis, severity of disability, or baseline consumption.

These results show that we can improve nutrition, reduce health inequalities, and give children attending Special Schools and their families much needed help to establish and sustain healthy lifestyles.

This research had been administered in partnership with several public sector bodies operating in Denbighshire and supported by a Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS) funding for a Masters by Research to Amy Roberts-Mitchell, working with Dr Erjavec and Prof Horne. We also thank Food Dudes Health Ltd; Go Wales scheme; all primary schools that took part; and the School of Psychology, Bangor University, for their contributions.