By Herlyn Kaur
In the fight against obesity, government-sponsored fat camps that shame young children into losing weight seem like an extreme approach to public health.
But that is exactly what Singapore has done, and the results speak for themselves — with a markedly lower obesity rate compared with other western countries.
So, with obesity rates among children increasing in Australia and data showing at least one in four Australian children are classified as overweight, could this approach ever be adopted here?
Imagine it: A schooling system which measures a child’s weight and Body Mass Index (BMI), separating and placing anyone overweight into rigorous physical activity programs and fat camps specifically targeted to reduce their weight.
Your child as young as seven years old could be fat shamed and openly asked to do more physical activity than their peers in school.
That is exactly how Singapore tackles obesity in its education system.
The Holistic Health Framework (HHF) is a government-mandated and regulated weight management program which works in conjunction with the “TAF Club” — an acronym for “Trim And Fit” or, for cynics, FAT spelled backwards — to actively reduce the country’s obesity rates.
Instead of spending time with their friends, anyone overweight is called out and told what to eat, as well as being placed on a strict exercise routine, with their progress monitored closely and re-evaluated every six months.
This system does not allow children or their families to choose if they would like to participate in the program, and parents are also told what they need to do to control their child’s weight.
Apart from this, overweight children are separated to do different exercises during physical education classes and are sometimes even made to stay in school after teaching hours to increase their physical activity.
One size doesn’t fit all, experts say
Experts in WA say the Singapore system could never be implemented here.
Parents need to take more responsibility for the health of their children, experts say. (iStockPhoto)
Edith Cowan University (ECU) lecturer and coordinator of health and physical education Donna Barwood said Singapore had a completely different education system and a government policy which would not work in Australia.
“It’s singling kids out who are obese,” she said.
“In a social justice perspective, I would never support that.”
Dr Barwood said the main issue facing Australia was the need for all schools to be consistent in implementing certain activities.
She also encouraged parents to get educated on their children’s health and wellbeing, rather than leaving it to schools to enforce regulations.
“The primary thing is for parents to step up to the plate and get involved. I don’t think it’s the school’s place to implement such rules,” she said.
The numbers don’t lie
Despite its controversial nature, the HHF and TAF programs have proven to be successful, with Singapore possessing one of the lowest obesity rates in the world.
Just 10 per cent of five-year-olds in Singapore are classified as overweight, compared with 25 per cent of Australian children.
So, are fat camps the solution to this crisis impacting millions of Australians?
ECU nutritionist and professor of public health nutrition Amanda Devine is another sceptic.
Dr Devine — who has helped develop websites to implement educational projects in the public health sector — said nutrition education and appropriate physical activity in schools was critical to improve the health of our future generations.
“ECU provides RefreshED, an engaging and relevant online curriculum to provide teachers with professional development and resources to teach healthy eating from kindy to Year 10,” she said.
“The website also suggests ways to build a healthy food environment in schools by linking ideas about growing foods, starting kitchen gardens and creating healthy canteens.”
Beyond the school gate
But despite education and nutrition programs being placed in our local schools, statistics have shown a rise in childhood obesity over the years.
Early action is needed to prevent obesity in children, experts say. (Reuters: John Vizcaino )
Dr Barwood believes it is not up to schools to fix this problem as she feels they are only there to educate children.
“Schools aren’t there to fix the problem, they’re there to educate,” she said.
“I don’t believe it will be fixed through schools, this issue is bigger than that. Parents have to take more responsibility to help fix this issue.”