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Lifestyle: Healthier way to spend the holiday; With the problem of obesity in children increasing, camps are being set up where they can slim over the summer break. Alison Jones reports on the first one in Birmingham.

Byline: Alison Jones

"There is strong research evidence that 70 per cent of parents with overweight children would describe their child as 'normal' weight and close to 50 per cent of parents of obese kids would describe their children as 'just right'.

Professor Paul Gately's sobering words reveal that levels of obesity have been climbing so steadily over the past 50 years that we no longer recognise it when we see it or realise it is an issue that needs addressing.

That we think it is fine for children barely out of primary school to have muffin-top rolls of fat round their waists that resembles middle-aged spread.

That we see pinchably chubby cheeks rather than a moon face where the bone structure is submerged between an over-stuffed subcutaneous layer.

"This is a national ignorance, a societal ignorance.

It is not limited to one particular group of parents," Prof Gately continues. "I give presentations and I will put pictures up of children of different ages and types and ask people to rate whether they are underweight, normal, overweight or obese.

"Most people get it wrong. They label the normal weight kids as underweight and describe the overweight kids as normal. Even the low level obese kids would be described as a 'bit overweight'.

Years ago a child's extra padding would have been dismissed as "puppy fat" that would be sloughed off as soon as the child hit a growth spurt.

"Without a doubt puppy fat does exist," Prof Gately agrees. "But the amount that I would describe as that is very small. Historically children used to grow out of it but there is pretty strong evidence that now they don't and levels of obesity continue to rise."

Sedentary lifestyles and 24 hours access to food, whether it is from the supermarket or the fridge, has led to the current crisis.

In the West Midlands 13.3per cent of reception age children are overweight and 10.4 per cent are obese. In Year 6 children 14.3 per cent are overweight and 19.1 per cent are obese. All of these figures are above the national average in England.

Prof Gately is instantly recognisable from his television appearances on Too Fat To Toddle and as the obesity expert assisting the Duchess of York in getting a family in Hull to see the error of their junk food eating ways.

For the past 10 years he has been involved in running the Carnegie Weight Management camps for young people and has helped 4,500 children to lose weight, improve their health and lessen the risk of their developing coronary heart disease.

The first Carnegie residential camp was held at Leeds Metropolitan University (the university's sports wing was set up through a trust established by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie)

This summer a day camp is being run in Birmingham for the first time. It will be held at Priory School, Edgbaston, every week from July 21 to August 29 and is open to children from as young as eight to 17 (For details ring 0113 8125233 or look up carnegieweightmanagement.com) Prof Gately came across the concept of these camps when he went to work on one in the States while still a student.

At first he was deeply impressed by the vast amounts these youngsters were losing in a relatively short space of time in a strictly controlled environment.

"It was a traditional American camp that had run for 30 years and had been set up by an academic to deal specifically with children with weight problems.

"But the American model was a very commercial model. The objective was 'as much weight as we can get off these kids equates to the amount of dollars we can charge'.

"We saw staggering weight losses and when I first got involved I thought 'this is amazing'. But when I came back I would see these kids who had lost 70lbs the year before had come back 100 lbs heavier They had regained their weight and then some more and that intrigued me."

Prof Gately, who studied sports science at Leeds and did a masters in nutrition before completing a PhD in weight loss in children, was eventually heading up the programme in America prior to bringing the concept over to the UK.

Over the years he modified it "to be more in line with what the best science suggested we should be doing, which was not going for this extreme boot camp regime. Berating people to lose weight or making them feel bad about it is just not the way to go."

Given that the unhappy campers were probably already being victimised by their slimmer peers, Prof Gately saw no reason why the abuse should continue from people they were asking for help.

"We did nick the good bits from the American model which were the social aspects. One of the problems with obese children is they are isolated because society doesn't accept people with weight problems. It ostracises them and makes them feel bad and guilty and blames them for their weight .

"One of the comments these children (at Carnegie) make is 'we are all in the same boat here so I don't feel like the fat kid anymore I feel normal'.

These kids are desperate to be normal.

He increased the educational aspect (which was nonexistent in the American camps when he arrived) which helps children make more informed choices about their diet and encourages them to take more responsibility for what they eat and what exercise they take, and to share this knowledge with their parents.

The combination of physical activity, which can include everything from boxercise to a treasure hunt, three healthy meals a day and two fruit snacks, lifestyle sessions (which could cover things like making a smoothie and testing its sugar content) and trying different hobbies, seems to work. Seventy five per cent of Carnegie children who lose weight, keep it off .

Prof Gately says there is also surprisingly little stigma attached to the idea of going to "fat camp".

"Most of the kids say that coming to the camps makes them less of a target. They get laughed at every single day for being overweight so it is quite unlikely we are going to increase that. Also, because they are somewhere they feel safe and confident, they say they tend to be more confident and not have as many bullying and teasing experiences outside.

"Part of our educational programme is how to cope with bullying and teasing so it is equipping them with the skills to exist more effectively in their home environment.

"The kids do get involved in some of the media stuff we do and think other children are going to take the mick when they see them on TV but that doesn't tend to happen, they actually become a bit of a cooler kid."

Parents are also encouraged to get involved in the process, often because they might need educating about healthy eating and the benefits or regular exercise themselves.

"We have a youth club night once a week and there are parent education classes.

"There have been cases where parents have come in and believed they are handing over the responsibility to us, for the children to be 'mended' if you like. We have had to say 'hang that is not how this programme works, this is about your kid and you learning how to lead a healthy lifestyle within the home environment'.

"We provide parents with recipe book and nutritional advice and will work with them to design lunch menus for the kids to bring in. We'll look at what choices they've made and then give them feedback, help them realise where those choices might be problematic."

In spite of Carnegie's success at helping thousands of youngsters, Prof Gately acknowledges there is still a mountain to climb in tackling the issue of obesity in children.

"Us setting up in places like Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Reading is just a first step.

"The Government is far more capable of tackling this issue.

"We are not a lobby organisation, we do it through real action. We have just got to keep proving our model is right."

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At camp children are encouraged to learn about healthy eating as well as taking part in activities they might otherwise avoid Professor Paul Gately
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 13, 2008
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