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Are Fat Camps the Answer to Australia’s Child Obesity Epidemic?

The statistics don’t lie, childhood obesity is a major public health issue. With 25% of Australian children overweight or obese in 2017, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

Fat camps might sound like a far-fetched solution, but this is a measure that Singapore has found effective in minimising child obesity in its population. Just 10% of children in Singapore are classified as being overweight.

The government implemented a weight-loss programme in 1992 to address a growing obesity rate which resulted in the reduction of the obesity in schoolchildren from 14% to 9.8% by 2002. Schools ran compulsory TAF (Trim and Fit) Clubs for overweight students to help them lose weight. Children from 9 years old to pre-tertiary had to take annual Body Mass Index testing, and those over 160% of the ideal BMI were referred to the TAF programme.

Children selected for TAF Clubs would be made to do extra exercise such as arriving at school early to ran laps before class, and they would be instructed on what to eat.

Although effective, the TAF programme singled out the fat kids and this had a psychological cost, so it was replaced in 2007 by a more holistic approach, the Holistic Health Framework (HHF) which is inclusive of all children. There was a correlation found between the TAF programme and instances of anorexia nervosa, bulimia and bullying. One former TAF Club participant shared that she experienced social isolation because of the programme, “They called out your name in PE (physical education) to tell you that you were in the TAF club, and you’d hear the other kids giggling”, she reported to The Strait Times.

The HHF programme has a much broader focus on health and well-being. It’s no longer just about weight-loss and fitness but mental and social health as well. The initiative provides nutritional education and implements opportunity for fun physical activities for all children, not just the overweight ones. The focus is around developing the motivation to live a healthy lifestyle and having fun while being active, it includes activity play at recess where children can participate in games and sports that get them moving.

Could a similar programme for Australian children be the answer to tackling our obesity crisis?

Edith Cowan University (ECU) lecturer and coordinator of health and physical education Donna Barwood is sceptical, saying that the education system and government policy in Singapore are different to Australia, she believes that a government implemented programme like this wouldn’t work here.

Certainly, a TAF style approach is not the answer as Singapore discovered. Professor of public health nutrition and ECU nutritionist Amanda Devine believes that nutrition education and proper physical activity in schools is vital to improve the health of Australia’s future generations.

Devine assisted in developing websites to introduce educational projects in the public health sector. The online curriculum, known as RefreshED, provides teachers with resources to teach children from kind to Year 10 about healthy eating.

The website also suggests ways to encourage a healthy food culture with ideas on growing foods, starting kitchen gardens and creating healthier school canteens.

Although education and nutrition programmes have been implemented in some schools, the statistics still show a rise in childhood obesity. Dr Barwood said there is a need for all schools to be consistent in implementing certain activities, but that it is not the responsibility of schools alone to fix the problem. And, she doesn’t believe the problem can be fixed through schools, because the issue is bigger than that. She says that parents must take more responsibility to help fix this issue.

Why Are We Getting Fatter?

It’s not just the kids, two-thirds of Australian Adults were overweight or obese in 2017. As Dr Barwood said, it is a bigger issue. The problem springs from lifestyle and the “obesogenic environment” we have created for ourselves.

We are surrounded by processed foods that a laden with fat and sugar and we are much less active than we used to be. Part of the problem is that our busy lifestyles make it easier to lure us to convenience which often means processed foods or takeaways. The prevalence of insulin-producing foods in our lives is why obesity rates are almost triple what they were in the sixties. Nowadays, billions of dollars are spent on advertising unhealthy food to children.

Sugary drinks are one of the main culprits, and diet versions are no better, see our article about how artificial sweeteners sabotage weight loss.

These days fewer children spend time running around, and more children are not receiving the benefits of free play outdoors. Playing might mean staring at a screen instead of a spontaneous game involving physical activity.

To balance this lack of spontaneous physical activity, parents try to incorporate physical activity into their children’s lives which often means cramming in organised sport into their already busy schedules. Which, unfortunately, often leads them to reach for more convenient, less healthy food options.

Also, people spend more time sitting in cars and less time walking for transport than we used to, this includes children.

Childhood obesity can cause serious health complications in childhood and result in psychological difficulties. Being overweight can lead to chronic illness in adulthood.

Related: See our guide to all types of body fats to learn more about the dangers of having excess fat.

What Can We Do to Reduce Childhood Obesity?

Perhaps fat camps are not the answer, but more consistent education on health and nutrition in Australian schools could be a step in the right direction. However, the statistics on overweight adults show that the problem is bigger, suggesting that there is truth in Dr Barwood’s belief that leaving it to schools to fix the problem is not enough. A population of overweight adults doesn’t set a good example for the younger generations. The Western Australia Department of Health suggests, “One of the best ways to address childhood overweight and obesity is to get the whole family involved in making healthy lifestyle changes”.

Kicking the sedentary lifestyle and adopting healthier eating habits can be challenging, especially if you are already very overweight. For some people, fat reduction procedures can give them the boost they need to make healthy lifestyle changes. Mega liposuction can be an effective treatment for obesity, and other surgical procedures might be worth investigating for adults struggling to reach a healthy weight. Related: See our article on why fat people struggle to lose weight.