Are 'fat camps' the answer to childhood obesity?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Government-mandated "fat camps" are shaming children in Singapore into losing weight, with a marked reduction in childhood obesity being recorded since the country implemented the program. With one in four Australian children classified as overweight or obese, is this approach something we should consider here?

Schools measure students' body mass index (BMI), and place overweight children into mandatory rigorous exercise programs and fat camps, specifically designed to help them lose weight. The children are singled out in front of their class and openly told they need to do more physical activity than their classmates.

The Holistic Health Framework (HHF) is a government-funded initiative which works with the TAF Club to help to reduce the country's obesity rate. "TAF" stands for "trim and fit", although cynics have also pointed out it's "FAT" spelled backwards.

Overweight children are pulled out of activities with their friends and told what to eat, as well as being given a strict exercise regimen. Their weight loss progress is closely monitored and their program reviewed every six months. Parents are also given instructions on what they must do to help their child lose weight. Children in the program are also separated out of regular physical education classes to do their own vigorous exercise, and are sometimes required to stay after school to do more physical activity.

Although the HHF and TAF programs have stirred controversy, there is no denying they do what they're designed to do. Singapore has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world, and just one in 10 five-year-olds are overweight, compared with one in four in Australia.

But Miriam Raleigh, paediatric dietitian and owner at Child Nutrition says it would be overly simplistic to suggest these programs alone are responsible for Singapore's low obesity rate.

"Childhood obesity is a complex condition and while lifestyle factors such as adequate physical activity and correctly balanced nutrition are certainly two of the major factors, the role of genetics must also be considered."

Ms Raleigh also says the issue isn't just about weight loss. "It's important to understand the full impact a program like this might have on the individual child and their family."

She suggests that rather than singling out children who need extra sessions of physical exercise, it might be beneficial to instead carry out the program with the entire school population.

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"If the program was carried out in an all-inclusive (regardless of your size) manner, then I believe the long-term effect would be wonderful."

Ms Raleigh doesn't believe children should be weighed and measured at school, but that it would be beneficial for schools to teach children more about nutrition and the benefits of exercise.

"The effect of information provided external to home is quite remarkable with many children coming home and requesting more colours on their plates, or some protein in their lunchbox, simply from information having been provided to them in an interesting and fun way," she says.

"If schools had programs in place to encourage greater physical activity in more creative ways too then that would be wonderful."

As for parents, Ms Raleigh says we shouldn't be talking to children about their weight at all.

"I think we should be focusing on talking to our children about trying to make sure that their intake is balanced and includes foods from all core food groups," she says. "We should make sure that our children know what the five food groups are and what makes them different from each other, and to understand how having foods from each of these food groups is important to fuel different parts of their bodies, from their brains to their muscles to their bones.

"We should be talking to children about how important it is for our body to move as often as possible and to provide opportunities for our children to try a range of different activities to find those that they enjoy and that they don't feel like a chore for them."

Brisbane mum Jane* has an eight-year-old daughter who is overweight. She says she finds the Singaporean method horrific.

"There is no way I'd allow my daughter to be shamed like that!" she said. "I ensure my child eats healthy food most of the time, and I'm working with her to find more physical activities she enjoys. But to publicly shame her like that? That could do much more damage than a bit of puppy fat ever could."

Penny* from Bunbury says her two sons, aged nine and 11, are overweight but that there is more to life than a number on a set of scales.

"Scales don't measure kindness or intelligence," she said. "Weight is just one factor that goes into a whole person. My boys are good kids who try hard and do well at school. They help at our local church every weekend, and they're always thinking of others. I couldn't be prouder of them. So what if they've got a couple of extra kilograms on? That extra weight can come off if and when they're ready."