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When Abby Ellin was 16 years old, she took the money she
inherited from her grandfather and enrolled herself in a fat camp. At 5'2"
and 136 pounds, she was hardly the poster-child of an obesity epidemic. Her
goal? To lose 10 pounds—almost nothing compared to some fellow campers who
hoped to eventually shed 100 pounds or more.
Did the $3,500 pay off? Yes and no. After nine weeks of
camp, Ellin was 10 pounds lighter. Two summers later, though, she returned to
camp having gained it all back and then some.
This was more than a couple decades ago, and Ellin—who in
2005 wrote about her four summers at fat camp both as a camper and a counselor
in Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs in On Living Large, Losing
Weight and How Parents Can (and Can't) Help—is still conflicted about
her experience and weight-loss camps in general.
Much like diets themselves, weight-loss camps deliver results in the short run.
While at Camp Colang in rural Pennsylvania, Ellin, now 45,
met girls who would become lifelong friends. She also experienced being a
popular girl for the first time, since, even in camp there were hierarchies in which the skinniest girls rose to the top. Colang was where Ellin learned what it
felt like to feel good about her body, which had always been openly scrutinized
by her thin and vocal grandmother.
And yet, about weight-loss camp for kids, she's ambivalent.
"I became one of the people who went to camp,
lost weight and then gained it back," Ellin said. "Camp became a
crutch for me."
Much like diets themselves, weight-loss camps deliver
results in the short run. Shell out thousands, pack up the suitcase and, most
likely, in even just two weeks you pick up a noticeably smaller child. It's the
long-run that's the problem. While few studies track the long-term results of
weight-loss camps—or diets in general—even ardent supporters acknowledge
Tony Sparber, owner and operator of New Image Weight Loss
Camps and the so-called "King of Fat Camps," said backsliding
happens. "In any weight-loss program, the easiest part is losing weight.
The hardest part is maintaining it."
Sparber's camps serve more than 500 kids—girls and an
increasing number of boys—every summer in Pennsylvania and Florida. Campers
go home with information, menus, links to an online nutritionist and planned
calls for the next three months. Still, post-camp changes don't always happen.
Calls from camp go unreturned. Menus get tossed. The kids are back to fending
for themselves, Sparber says.
"The No. 1 person, especially for kids 13 and younger, is the parents. If
parents continue their old ways, eating out and buying snacks, they're more
than likely to gain back the weight—and more." The entire family has to
make changes to get long-term results. "Kids can't do this on their own—parents' role is key to after care."
Parents also learned about healthy eating and how to support campers once they return.
Jean Riordin of Hudson Valley, N.Y. gets it. Two of her kids attended Camp
Shane in New York's Catskills mountains seven summers ago. Her daughter, then
13, and son, then 11, both lost weight in the weeks they were away. In addition
to a camp experience for the kids, Riordin and fellow parents also learned
about healthy eating and how to support campers once they return.
"It was a good education for me and the other moms and
kids," Riordin, 47, said. "I took out carbs, I didn't eat pasta for
years. I made sure there was a lot more healthy stuff ready. I learned that
people don't really need much food in a day."
Still, her kids regained much of the weight they had lost.
"It was so much money. We didn't really have it, but
they just weren't mature enough to get the lessons totally," she
said. "It's an uphill battle for
their physical body types."
Riordin's son, who poured his energy into sports, turned the
pounds into muscle in middle and high school. Her daughter, who got up to 200
pounds returned to camp every summer, including as a counselor. Her road, her
mother says, has been more difficult. At one point, disordered eating plunged
her weight to 120 pounds, a consequence some parents fear when considering weight-loss
camps for their own kids.
Ellin, also an editor at large for Fitsmi, an online forum
and support group for overweight and obese teen girls, says weight-loss camps
by their very design can harbor all kinds of disordered eating—something she
experienced at a different weight-loss camp as a counselor.
"I remember this camp had a back room, where counselors
could get their own food and eat as much as they wanted. I sort of binged the
whole summer," Ellin said. "Sometimes, we'd have a party and break
into the kitchen. I think because of the deprivation, it heightened our
appetites and put an unnatural fixation on food."
Losing weight is just one aspect of weight-loss camp, though. There's a social
"At camp, my daughter found the friends that she didn't
really have in school," Riordin said. "Most of the girls that have
been her friends have been from camp. So camp was emotional help as well as
And that's exactly what Sparber says weight-loss camp can do
Some accept children as young as 7 and others as old as 25.
"A lot of these kids are left out at home,"
Sparber said. "But at our camps, everyone is invited to the party. We
believe the social and the self-esteem is what this whole thing is tied into."
For kids who are only known at school for being fat,
weight-loss camp can be a release from that stigma and shame, and a chance to
be who they are.
"A lot of these kids come in lethargic, depressed, down. Their head is down—no eye contact," Sparber said. "They don't
talk much. By end of the first week, [you] can't shut them up."
Prices start at around $2,000 for the minimum two-week stay
most camps require. Some accept children as young as 7 and others as old as 25.
Program activities and weight-loss strategies vary. Some offer cognitive
behavioral therapy as a part of the program. Nearly all have regular
opportunities for campers to talk about struggles and feelings. A few of the
camps, like Camp Shane, are coed. Others, such as Sparber's New Image camps,
have separate facilities for girls and boys.
Attending weight-loss camp should be a joint decision
between parent and child, according to Sparber, Ellin and Riordin.
"There were so many kids there who were seriously obese ... but they didn't want to be there," Ellin said. "They would go home and gain the weight
right back—camp, weight-loss, it wasn't something they wanted for themselves.
It was thrust on them."
Katherine de Baun, an editor at Fitsmi for Moms, which
recently posted a roundup of the top seven weight-loss camps for kids, agrees
that camp only works if the kids want to go. Letting them know that camp is
an option is a start. Don't nag. And step up.
"If you yourself have poor eating habits or are not
exercising, one of the best things you can do is just start the process for
yourself," de Baun said in an interview. "You don't have to say anything about it—your daughter will
notice. It's a powerful message to her that you're taking care of
And that goes for dads too, she said.
You don't want some place where the lake is 20 miles from camp.
Sparber says the camps should be fun, and have to be near
all of the facilities touted in their literature. "You don't want some
place where the lake is 20 miles from camp. If it is, they're not swimming in
the lake every day."
He said camps should have enough nurses, there should be
background checks on all the staff, and they should have a good reputation and a good
student-to-staff ratio. (Sparber's New Image Weight Camps employ 1 staff member
for every 4 campers.) He says parents should also ask whether other groups will
be using the camp facilities while camp is in session.
"Weight-loss camp should be private and with no access and temptations to
other types of foods and things like that," Sparber says.
It's been years since Ellin first signed up for camp, but the pros and cons to
weight-loss camp are the same, she says. They're expensive, but not any more
than traditional sleep-away camps. Your kid will lose weight, but only so much
in a short amount of time and likely not permanently. Camp might be where your
kid becomes obsessed with food, though she'll be in an environment set up to
support her goals, not undermine them.
"On the one hand, you change yourself, change who you are. But the flip
side is you're also learning [to] accept yourself," Ellin said. "And
you're among those who accept you. You're doing this hard thing together."