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.



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


Breakfast: Cereal

Lunch: Low-fat pizza

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

Dinner: Beef risotto (restricted portion)

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

    Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

    SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

    £1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

    Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

    £32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam