Interview: Darren Debono - Meet Darren. He's 13 years old, 20 stone and suffering. Britain's first fat camp is his last chance for a normal life
Sunday 25 July 1999
Weight problems among children are rocketing: in 1996 nutritionists estimated that only 5 per cent of children were overweight; now one in 10 British children is classed as clinically obese (20 per cent or more over the ideal maximum weight). And the trend is ever upwards and outwards. A growing love of junk food, computer games and TV combined with a growing distaste for exercise by young people are helping to create the blob generation. And the fall-out isn't looking pretty.
Numerous studies have shown that obesity leaves children more likely to be bullied at school and, later, prejudiced against at work. As Paul Gately, technical director of the camp and lecturer in exercise, physiology and health at Leeds Metropolitan University, says, "Children as young as six years old don't want to play with an obese child. As young as that, there is social discrimination against these kids, and it's getting worse."
Darren is one of the biggest of the 40 or so children aged between 11 and 17 who will be spending time at the camp this summer. "Fat camps", summer camps that aim to help children lose weight, are a solution that is already well-established in the US. In American camps, children endure rigorous diets and punishing exercise regimes. But the American camps have been criticised, at best, as offering only a short-term solution; the children tend to pile the weight back on as soon as they get home. Britain's first camp, staffed by dieticians, PE teachers and other professionals, is being run from Leeds Metropolitan University, and it aims to tackle things differently. No quick fixes or cheap gimmicks, but a serious, long- term approach to the problem.
Last week, Darren will have experienced a programme that includes daily sports such as aerobics, football, swimming and sailing, a carefully tailored low-fat diet, and, most importantly, the education that is designed to help the children to sustain their new, good habits. The emphasis is on enjoyment as much as achievement. All participants have to try all sports on offer. Surprisingly, deprivation doesn't play a part - the menu will include favourites such as burgers and barbecues.
When Darren's mother Anne first broached the idea of the camp, Darren's initial reaction was one of alarm. "I said there wasn't a chance in the world that I'm going to go to this," he said last week, at home in High Wycombe, a few days before the journey to Leeds. Wanting to lose weight, it seems, doesn't necessarily include an enthusiasm for cutting down and shaping up. So what changed his mind? "Basically, I have to go. They didn't try to persuade me, they just paid the deposit! I just thought, 'Oh my God'."
Anne has no regrets about this draconian strategy - nor the money involved. She and her husband have scraped together pounds 1,500 towards the course, topped up to the pounds 2,000 fee with a pounds 500 local authority grant awarded to Darren. "He's actually looking forward to it now," she said firmly. "Anywhere he's gone before where there have been activities, he's been the only person there who was overweight. Once I explained that everybody was there for the same reason, I think he felt more content with the situation, because he's not going to have to hide himself away."
Being more than twice one's ideal weight at the age of 13 makes for a miserable life. Sweet-natured and doing well at school, Darren wants to be an actor or a police officer. Unfortunately, most kids are much more interested in his size than his personality. "People say jokes about me and swear at me and spit at me and call me names," said Darren. "It makes me feel really upset. It's not just people at school but people I don't know as well, people in the street. People just try to impress their mates by upsetting me. I get mad some of the time, or I get upset. Sometimes I just try to ignore it, or tell them to get lost." He is reticent about exactly what is said to him, but it's not hard to guess the kinds of insults that are his daily lot.
Now that he is resigned to spending his summer holiday at the six-week camp, Darren has alarmingly high expectations.
"I'm hoping to lose at least two to three stone. I've worked out that to lose three stone I've got to lose 1lb a day. It won't be that hard."
This may not prove realistic - most dietary guidelines recommend shedding just 1lb to 2lb a week for sustainable weight loss and to lose just 1lb it is necessary to burn more than 3,500 calories. Yet before he left for the camp, Darren was already begging his mother to let him burn his hated school trousers in anticipation of a new, streamlined shape. Taking up most of the two-seater sofa in the front room at home, dressed in straining track pants and T-shirt, he yearns for a pair of combat trousers, but they aren't made big enough. And it's not just clothes that are a humiliation; Anne had to buy him a double sleeping bag for the camp - single ones weren't big enough.
Darren is the only one in his family to have a serious weight problem. Darren, sighs Anne, just doesn't have the willpower to control his eating. "I've tried to diet lots of different ways," Darren insisted. "One time I tried to cut out fatty foods and fizzy drinks and eat healthily. That tasted nice for a bit but I went off it. I kept on going off diets and going back to what I used to eat." He finds it impossible to resist junk food. "I don't exactly think it's unfair that I'm overweight, because I've got myself into this. I overeat, I love burgers and chips and sweets. But I don't eat differently from my friends."
Anne blames herself for Darren's weight problem. "If it wasn't for me he wouldn't be as he is today. My whole way of doing things was wrong, and by the time it clicked I didn't have the knowledge to do the right sort of cooking." She consulted a dietician, but, said Darren plaintively, "the healthy food didn't fill me up, and it only tasted good for about a week!" Pretty soon he was sneaking illicit chocolate bars. He believes the structured regime at the camp might be the answer. "It'll work because it's actually restricted, we won't get money to buy food." And what if it all gets too much for him? "Tough, really," he shrugs.
"He's going to have to stick it out," says Anne, who will be attending meetings at the camp for parents. Her concerns go beyond his looks. "He's not as energetic and healthy as he once was. His health is a big issue with me. It seems to me he's going to be losing out on a lot of young life because of his weight." She is also concerned that being harassed is making her son aggressive. "He doesn't want people to pick on him so he gives out this attitude of 'Don't mess with me'. But he's finding out that you can't be like that because there are tougher boys and they've got even tougher cousins."
Paul Gately says the main benefit Darren is likely to derive from the camp is that he will come home, "far more confident in wanting to be active and more enthusiastic about doing things". He believes that this is even more important than issues around food. "It's highly unlikely that these children are overweight due to what they eat," he says. "As a nation we eat less than we did 30 years ago - but we are far less active."
Gately, who has worked at American camps, found that in the US there is a huge emphasis on burning calories - unfit children would be made to run up hills, for example. The programme at Leeds is lighter and more enjoyable. "We asked the children what they would like to do," says Gately. "We are entirely child-centred."
But despite this moderate approach, the Leeds camp has been attacked by various experts over the past few days. First because there is a cost attached to the programme - the team was unable to secure NHS funding. Second, the camp has been accused of stigmatising fat children. This annoys Gately. "In my experience the effect is the total opposite," he says. "These children face social stigma every day of their lives. At the camps they can build strong bonds with other children - they are just Johnny or Jenny, not 'the fat kid'."
Perhaps one of the hardest things will be managing the children's hopes. "They will certainly have high expectations," agrees Phil Gately. "But a key part of what we are going to do is education - helping them to set realistic goals."
Darren's parents aren't expecting instant results; they see the camp as a headstart in what will be a lifelong race. "We know Darren isn't going to come back the perfect size," says Anne. "But he's always going to be a handsome boy and he's always going to be smart, and he's always going to be intelligent."
For further information, tel: 0113 283 7418.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
DARREN'S DIET AT HOME...
Breakfast: Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, round of toast
Mid-morning snack: sweets, crisps
Lunch: Burger and chips
Mid-afternoon snack: chocolate, fizzy drinks, more burgers
Dinner: Large portion of shepherd's pie or casserole - plus second helpings
General snacks: sandwiches
DARREN'S DIET AT CAMP...
Lunch: Low-fat pizza
Mid-afternoon snack: fresh fruit or vegetables. Only two snacks allowed per day.
Dinner: Beef risotto (restricted portion)
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