The state-sanctioned bullying of fat kids

Why is Britain opening so many ‘fat camps’? The evidence suggests they don’t work, and only make overweight children feel isolated and ashamed.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

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Patrick Basham and John Luik, co-authors of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade, argue that the UK authorities are sticking ‘badges of shame’ on overweight children.

Last year’s erroneously titled Foresight report on obesity, published by the UK government, recommended ‘fat camps’ for overweight British teenagers, because apparently radical strategies are necessary to avert a public health catastrophe. This draconian policy found its way into the government’s evidence-free obesity strategy, Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives, which prescribes anti-obesity interventions at the local level.

Consequently, Rotherham Primary Care Trust, as part of the new Rotherham Obesity Strategy, has unveiled a three-year plan targeting families with overweight children. The Trust identified Rotherham’s fattest children and this summer banished 38 of them to a fat camp, the Carnegie Residential Weight Loss Camp, in Leeds.

This is not the first time that fat British children have been sent away because they are aesthetically unpleasing to their parents, peers and the public health establishment. The summer of 1999 saw Britain’s first residential fat camp (based on the American model) open its doors to 40 overweight children. The Too Fat to Toddle camp, the first British fat camp for under-fives, opened for business late last year.

This week, officialdom’s war against fat children was stepped up a mark. The government revealed that, starting in the next school term, parents will be sent ‘fat reports’ on their children. As part of the anti-obesity crusade, schools will weigh children at the age of four to five and again at 10 to 11 and send details about their Body Mass Index to parents, with advice on whether their child’s weight is unhealthy. And Sunday’s Observer reported that Britain’s first live-in fat camp – a ‘boarding school exclusively for overweight and obese teenagers’ – will open soon in the Lake District.

It is deeply frustrating that British policymakers did not heed the lessons of the American experience, where fat camps have existed for 45 years, before unleashing yet another futile childhood obesity intervention.

The first fat camp for children, New York State’s Camp Napanoch, opened in 1963. Three years later, it was out of business. During the next 30 years, a large number of fat camps appeared across America. Eventually, the fat camp business turned sour and most camps went bust. By the mid-1990s, there were fewer than 20 fat camps in operation. Today, there are only a dozen left.

Why is business so bad in America, the world leader in fat children and obsessive parenting? Because the dirty little secret of fat camps is that they do not work.

It is true that often a child will go to a fat camp and return home a stone or two lighter. At the UK’s original fat camp in Leeds, obese teenagers typically lose 12lb over a one-month residential stay.

Chances are, however, that they will regain the weight in a few months. The Los Angeles Times reported that only one in 10 American campers actually keep the weight off. A New York Times investigation found that the majority of campers attending these programmes are repeat customers.

Individual camp’s self-reporting success stories are littered with methodological problems, as most fat camps neither track nor report post-camp outcomes. Most do not remain in contact with their customers and camp ‘graduates’ cannot be trusted to honestly respond to questionnaires that attempt to keep tabs on their weight history.

Most fat campers regain substantial amounts of weight within the first year. In a warning to parents, Dr Oded Bar-Or, director of McMaster University’s Children’s Exercise and Nutrition Center, said: ‘If you think the camp is going to solve the problem – the child will at long last lose weight and keep it that way – you can forget it.’

Therefore, it is unsurprising, yet deeply revealing, that the Rotherham Obesity Strategy provides information neither on the anticipated effectiveness of its own fat camps nor on the effectiveness of similar camps. To be fair, it cannot do so because there is no empirical evidence, as the Foresight report acknowledged, that government intervention in this area produces the desired outcome.

Most tellingly, perhaps, last autumn a qualitative study of the management of childhood obesity was published in the journal, BMC Family Practice. In this study, a representative group of primary care doctors in the 39 general practices that contract with Rotherham Primary Care Trust concluded that the evidence base for these programmes remains poor.

Earlier, the prestigious Cochrane systematic reviews of interventions for childhood obesity, which included 18 studies of various different treatments, found none of them to be effective.

Dr Melinda Sothern, director of Louisiana State University’s Laboratory for the Prevention of Childhood Obesity, says there is no published research to prove that fat campers keep off the weight they lost. According to Dr Sothern: ‘They may learn some concepts, but there is no research to support that even happens.’

It would be bad enough if these fat camps simply meant that good public money was being thrown after bad. Sadly, fat camps have unintended consequences that may dwarf their financial cost and their documented failures.

The evidence strongly suggests that fat camps encourage eating disorders among children. As Dr Leslie Cannold, a bioethicist at the University of Melbourne, reminded us last year: ‘Children’s bodies change rapidly right up to their early twenties, with the pre-teen and teen years critical moments for the development of self-identity and self-esteem. It’s hard to imagine a worse time for children to be told their developing bodies are an eyesore and evidence of poor moral character.’

Fat camps isolate children with a weight problem and add to the distress of an obese child. Professor Nick Finer of Luton and Dunstable Hospital’s Obesity Research Centre, says: ‘You have to consider the psychological effects of sending your child away to such a place. Society already discriminates against fat people and I’m concerned that children might see being sent to these camps as a punishment for being fat.’

Fat children are expected to suffer, with stereotypical jolliness, the slings and arrows of a society dangerously obsessed with thinness. Probably, school playgrounds will always witness the bullying of fat children. But, as adults, we can and should eliminate fat-based bullying from government policy.

Patrick Basham and John Luik are co-authors, with Gio Gori, of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade, a Social Affairs Unit book. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Patrick Basham and John Luik said that new research taught obesity hysterics a lesson. Elsewhere they attacked the proposals to remove children from obese households. Peter Marsh asked what’s behind the sensationalist child obesity headlines. Jennie Bristow reported the findings of a spiked poll showing that parents should be responsible for children’s diets. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.


Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives: A Cross-Government Strategy for England, Department of Health, London, 2008

Nancy Fielder, Obese Children Sent to ‘Fat Camp’, Sheffield Telegraph, 10 July 2008

Tackling Obesities: Future Choices – Modelling Future Trends in Obesity and the Impact on Health, Klim McPherson et al, Foresight Report, London: Government Office for Science, 2007

Interventions for Treating Obesity in Children, CD Summerbell et al, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2003 (3)

A Qualitative Study of Primary Care Clinicians’ Views of Treating Childhood Obesity, Olivia Walker et al, BMC Family Practice 2007 (1)

Britain’s first live-in school for fat pupils, Observer, 27 July 2008

Schools resort to ‘fat reports’ for pupils who tip the scales, Daily Mail, 28 July 2008

Topics Politics


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