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

Darren Debono is no ordinary child. His 5ft 9in frame supports about 20st of desperate teenager. Worn down by constant teasing and harassment, he has checked in to Britain's first weight-loss camp for obese children. His mother, Anne Debono, believes this is make-or-break time. "We've tried everything else," she says. "There's nowhere else to go."

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...

Breakfast: Cereal

Lunch: Low-fat pizza

Mid-afternoon snack: fresh fruit or vegetables. Only two snacks allowed per day.

Dinner: Beef risotto (restricted portion)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own