Obesity: Health farms planned for fat children

US firm plans to open pounds 3,000-a-week `fat camps' for youngsters as star who once weighed 16st sheds 20lb
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The Independent Online
HUNDREDS OF overweight children could soon be spending their summer holidays dieting and exercising at American-style health farms.

For nine weeks the children, some as young as seven, will be subjected to an intense exercise regime including aerobics, cycling and swimming and will be restricted to a diet of 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day - most children should eat between 1,750 and 2,000 daily. The course will cost pounds 3,000.

One California-based camp is planning to open in Britain next year as soon as it has found a suitable site. Nancy Lenhart, of the La Jolla weight- loss camp, said the decision followed a significant rise in the number of British parents contacting the so-called fat camps in the US.

"We think a camp like ours will work well. Five years ago it was only Americans but the number of British children coming here to lose weight has been increasing year on year," she said.

Although there are no precise figures on the number of obese British children, a study by Exeter University of 700 children between the ages of 11 and 16 showed that more than 13 per cent of the boys and 9 per cent of the girls were overweight. In America twice as many children - one in five - are officially classed as obese.

Paul Gateley, a lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University who is doing a PhD on weight loss in children, said most of the American camps were simply run to make money and did not take a scientific approach to helping overweight children.

Mr Gateley, who worked in a children's health farm in Massachusetts, said he was appalled.

"When I first went there all the children were on a 1,000- calorie-a- day diet, regardless of whether they were seven or 17 and irrespective of how much they weighed," he said.

"They were made to do a form of circuit training which they did not enjoy and which didn't encourage them to stay active once they got home."

Dee Dawson, the medical director of Rhodes Farm, a London clinic for eating disorders, said that most overweight children had a psychological problem and nine weeks at a fat camp would not solve it.

"From what I understand, these camps do not address the psychological problems and children who are overweight need therapy," she said. "It is rare for children to over-eat unless they have a problem and they need to work it out with their families and have family therapy to try and sort it out.

"But very often children just don't need to diet. They are growing extremely fast and their height and weight will usually balance out."

Barbara Livingstone, a nutritionist and researcher in childhood obesity at the University of Ulster, said she was concerned at how the camps would be run.

"I would be worried that children who were only mildly overweight were being sent there. It is dangerous to put children on a diet without the advice of a qualified dietician and also telling them they are overweight and sending them away could also create problems with a child's self-esteem."