Page last updated at 06:54 GMT, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

2,000 obese children offered help

Ellen Anstee and her daughter Dionne Martyn explain the benefits of the course

Hundreds of overweight children and their families are being offered free 10-week diet and exercise courses to help crack obesity problems in Wales.

Around 2,000 seven to 13-year-olds will get advice and there will be help for parents on shopping on a budget.

The 1.4m Welsh Assembly Government programme will last three years.

The National Obesity Forum welcomed it but questioned whether a young enough age group had been targeted. One dietician has seen obese two-year-olds.

One in five 13-year-olds in Wales is overweight or obese, and Welsh children have some of the highest body mass indexes in the world, said the assembly government.

It is funding the Mend (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition... Do It!) scheme.

Chief medical officer for Wales Dr Tony Jewell said being overweight could be tough for children both physically and emotionally.

"Caring for an overweight or obese child can be difficult too, especially if they lack confidence or feel depressed because of their size," he said.

"We have evidence that shows the programme raises individuals' self esteem and supports them in making healthier choices.

Children at exercise class in Abertillery
The course has been piloted in four areas, including Blaenau Gwent

"It's vital that we tackle the obesity issue. Welsh children's rates of obesity are already too high and are increasing.

"Overweight or obese children are also more likely to be overweight or obese adults. More than half, 57%, of all adults in Wales are already overweight or obese."

Families will enrol on the course themselves or be referred by a GP. Follow up support will also be available.

Organisers say it concentrates on teaching parents, carers and children weight management skills rather than simply focusing on weight loss.

The programme was put together by child health experts at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the University College London Institute of Child Health.

The scheme has already been piloted in four areas of Wales - Flintshire, Pembrokeshire, Conwy and Gwent - with 47 children and their families.

The founder and research director of the programme, Paul Sacher, said many parents of bigger children did not realise their child was above the healthy weight range, or put it down to "puppy fat" that would disappear.

"However, being overweight or obese as a child is a serious condition. Overweight children suffer physically and emotionally and it can lead to serious health problems in later life," he said.

"Mend programmes help boost children's self-esteem while changing the way everyone in the family thinks about what they eat and being active.

"Children and parents also meet others who are in a very similar position so they form their own supportive network."

Families taking part in a trial lost an average 4.3cm (1.7in) from their waists after six months.

Courses will be run all over Wales in selected areas and more information about healthy living will be made available to families unable to take part.

Hundreds of health professionals across Wales will also receive awareness training and tips on how to support families with obese children.

Neath Port Talbot
Vale of Glamorgan
Merthyr Tydfil
Rhondda Cynon Taf

Last week, an NHS dietician said children as young as two were being treated for obesity.

Dr David Haslam, clinical director of the National Obesity Forum, said he welcomed any scheme to tackle obesity but questioned whether it was targeting young enough children.

He said: "It's important to catch them early. The crucial time is the first five years. 1.4m is a drop in the ocean and is nowhere near enough money."

Conservative health spokesperson, Jonathan Morgan AM, said: "While we welcome any investment in tackling this health time bomb we have to think seriously about how money is spent.

"Sending people on 10-week boot camps will not in itself tackle the long-term problems caused by obesity.

"We need a co-ordinated strategy tackling the way people see food, and one that also ensures young people see exercise as a normal part of their daily routine."

Peter Black AM, Lib Dem health spokesperson, said while his party welcomed any initiative to help overweight and obese children in Wales, questions needed to be asked about why Welsh children were "comparatively more overweight by international standards".

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