CHILDREN as young as two are being sent to NHS “fat camps” across the Lothians in a bid to tackle an obesity crisis.
More than 700 have been referred to NHS Lothian’s paediatric weight management programme in the past three years – with funding for the service increasing by more than a third.
Around one in seven Scottish children aged between two and 15 are classed as obese. Last year more than 3500 primary one pupils were clinically or severely obese when they started school – up almost 400 on the previous year.
Health experts warned that more babies were being born fat to overweight mothers and were living increasingly sedentary, inactive lifestyles.
New official figures reveal that in 2011/12, NHS Lothian spent £92,000 referring 168 children to its paediatric weight management service. In 2013/14 the health board spent £140,000 treating 348 children.
The number of two to 11-year-olds treated at the service jumped from 68 to 188 in just three years.
During the programme, children and their parents learn about healthy eating, physical activity and “making positive lifestyle choices”.
The children are encouraged to play active games while their parents set long-term health goals.
Raj Bhopal, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, said: “The problem begins in pregnancy. Women who are overweight are giving birth to larger babies with more fat on them and then the cycle begins.
“As babies, some will be active, crawling around. But in some families infants are already becoming sedentary, being left to sit in front of the TV. The consequences are very serious. If you are obese in childhood then the risk of being overweight as an adult is considerable.
“The problem is people are eating too much in relation to how much energy they need with their lifestyle, and once the weight is on, it is very hard to get off again.
“By their early teens, children who grew up obese are at risk of health complications, such as developing type two diabetes. By their 30s and 40s they are at increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as well as musco-skeletal diseases.”
Prof Bhopal said increasing exercise and healthy food options in schools had only been a “modest” success.
“Most people working in public health would agree that the answer lies in changing the wider environment,” he said.
“Looking at what food we grow in this country, what food we tax, what food people are choosing to buy in supermarkets, where that food is placed in the supermarket.
“We have too much food around us, the amount of filling in sandwiches, the toppings on pizza, buffets for a low price where we can eat as much as we like.
“Governments have been loath to intervene and have put the emphasis on the individual’s behaviour, but this is not working and we need to try a new approach.”
Tam Fry, chairman of the Child Growth Foundation, said: “I think its shameful, but it doesn’t surprise me. It just represents the appalling state we are now in and the sorry state of affairs that the health services has not got on top of childhood obesity.
“All babies should be routinely monitored for weight gain and intervention should be introduced before they get obese.”
Professor Alison McCallum, director of public health and health policy at NHS Lothian, said: “Helping children and families eat well and be active are important priorities for NHS Lothian.
“In 2011 we launched a family-based healthy weight programme providing specialist support and advice on healthy eating as well as fun physical activity sessions for children outwith a healthy weight range and their parents or carers.”