Does your kid need to be sent to fat camp?
Parents must wake up to the growing scourge of childhood obesity, says Chrissie Russell
'It happened gradually," says Dan. "Steven was always big for his age, very broad and tall. I think that hid his weight for a while, or maybe I just comforted myself thinking that. "But when we couldn't get clothes to fit him and had to buy sizes for several years older, I knew there was a problem."
At 10, Steven is several stone heavier than most of his classmates. In build he's twice the size of some of his peers and has faced teasing from teenagers on the street on account of his weight. "He knows he's different and sometimes it's clear it upsets him," says Dan.
Dan is not his real name, nor is his son's name Steven. Such is the stigma attached to having an obese child the Dublin dad wished to remain anonymous.
"You take it as a reflection of yourself," he explains. "No one wants to feel like a bad parent; you don't want to think you've done something wrong. But that could be the case."
But whether we want to admit it or not, there's clearly a problem. In Ireland, the statistics are frightening. An estimated 300,000 children, about one third, are overweight, with the number thought to be rising by 10,000 annually.
A recent report, Growing Up In Ireland, revealed that the rates of obesity in children here are higher than in many other northern European countries.
According to the Irish Heart Foundation, one in 10 five-to-12-year-olds is obese, and for teens that rises to one in five. The extent of the problem has prompted calls for action, most recently the proposal at the AGM of the Irish Medical Organisation that children should be weighed on their first day of school to check if they're overweight.
But fat is a taboo and previous initiatives have made little progress because there isn't enough desire to recognise the problem.
In 2006, DCU proposed to set up Ireland's first fat camp for young people, but the four-week weight-loss programme generated so little interest that it never ran.
A recent study published in the Irish Medical Journal collected data from 101 parents and their children. None of the parents with obese children correctly identified the child as obese.
Ruth Charles is a dietician at Nutrikids, a consultation service set up to guide parents on what children should be eating. "The most common thing I come up against is denial," says Ruth.
"Parents tell me their son or daughter doesn't really eat that much, but when they write their diet down, it's poor.
"A mum brought her two-year-old in and the child was just a little round ball. Her mum was giving her bottles concentrated at twice the level to help her sleep. The child was sleeping, but she was also blowing up like a balloon."
She adds: "Parents need to be educated in food and exercise, for their children and themselves."
But it's not just about monitoring food.
Former professional rugby player Aled Hughes (aledhughes.ie) runs several initiatives aimed at helping children move more.
Schools and sports clubs across south Dublin hire Aled for Co-Dex Kids, a training programme to teach children fundamental movement skills.
Aled's seeing a growing number of parents coming to him requesting one-on-one classes for help with their overweight children.
He says: "I make it clear that an hour a week with me isn't going to make a difference if they're eating junk at home. But movement is vital; most children aren't getting enough exercise."
Dan's son, Steven, has lost over a stone since starting with Aled four months ago. "He could do with losing another stone, but his body's totally changed," says Dan. He adds: "He's on the right path now."
But Dan isn't following his son's example.
"I'd probably be classified obese, but I don't think I look like I've a problem.
"There's still junk in the house, but it's for the adults -- not Dan. I suppose there's a touch of 'do as I say, not as I do'."