Christmas pickings will be leaner this year for several overweight children in London primed to fill up on healthy food such as Brussels sprouts and fruit instead of extra helpings of turkey stuffing and pudding.
"Last year, in my stocking I had lots of chocolates. This year I just want toys and healthy stuff," said 10-year-old Charlie Siggins, who meets with 10 other overweight and obese children twice a week to learn about nutrition and exercise.
Classmate Brooke Ivers, 11, chipped in: "I'm not going to eat too much junk."
Bad diet and inactivity is pushing up obesity rates in England, where 19 percent of boys and 18 percent of girls aged 2 to 15 were classed as obese in 2004, a 50 percent increase in child obesity rates compiled in 1995.
Carrying extra weight can lead to health problems such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer, which puts a strain on the public health system, costing the English economy as much as 7.4 billion pounds ($14.55 billion) a year.
Sitting in a circle at a leisure centre in east London, Charlie, Brooke and the other children talk with a dietician about how to survive Christmas without overeating.
"You have to calm down," said Anne-Marie Holdsworth, the dietician who runs the MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition Do it!) Programme - a 10-week course for overweight and obese 7 to 13 year olds and their parents.
"Eat until you are full up and then stop. Also drink plenty of water," she said, as the children nod in agreement and study a handout entitled "A MEND-friendly festive season dinner survival guide", which offers tips on how to resist temptation.
A number of public and private initiatives are underway to encourage children to be more active and improve their diet.
Among them is the privately-owned MEND Programme, which was conceived in 2001 by Paul Sacher, a paediatric dietician at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and clinical psychologist Dr Paul Chadwick.
MEND Central Ltd was set up as a private firm in 2004 to sell the programme -- including charts, handouts and learning tools -- to local health authorities, private industry and other parties who in turn offer it for free to obese and overweight children.
"MEND is not a diet, it is about teaching people healthy principles for life," said Ulla Stauch, one of three directors at the small, London-based firm.
Twenty courses are currently running, but that figure is set to jump next year after the National Lottery awarded MEND 7.9 million pounds to fund 1,610 courses.
"The primary idea is that it is fun, but while the children are having fun they are also moving and exercising," said Russell Collins of the Barking and Dagenham Primary Care Trust in east London, which funded Charlie and Brooke's programme.
For the first hour of each session, the children learn about diet, nutrition and behavioural habits. Parents also attend and are encouraged to join in the discussions. The second hour is spent either in the gym or the swimming pool.
Each child has a nutrition and exercise goal, which he or she is assessed on every week. They are rewarded if the target is met.
ONE BAG OF CHIPS
Charlie pledged to eat just one bag of chips a week instead of three and to walk to school twice a week with his grandfather.
"Also I have not been eating as many crisps. I used to eat two bags a day and now I eat about one every week," he said.
Brooke, a pretty, round-faced girl, joined the course to learn about healthy eating.
"I was bullied (at school) by a friend who would call me chubby and fat but now I have come here I feel much better," she said.
Along with improving her self-esteem, Brooke has also cut down on bags of crisps and said she eats salad instead.
Her mother, Jackie Ivers, 36, said she too had benefited.
"It has made us more aware about being healthy, what is good for you and what is not good for you," she said.
The government has pledged to halt the rise in obesity among children under 11 by 2010.
Caroline Flint, Minister of State for Public Health, acknowledged this was a tough call and would require local councils, private industry and individuals to play a role.
"It is challenging. There is no doubt about it," Flint told Reuters.