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Should I Send My Kid to Fat Camp?

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 this downside.

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 one too.

"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 physical."

And that's exactly what Sparber says weight-loss camp can do for kids.

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 yourself."

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."

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