A NORTH-EAST town which holds the unenviable record as England's childhood obesity capital is to host an international conference on fighting the flab.

Middlesbrough is the venue for a Valentine's Day gathering of UK and foreign obesity experts, organised by the Association for the Study of Obesity.

It will focus on why the poorest and most disadvantaged groups are often those suffering the most from obesity, and reveal plans to launch an initiative later in the year, called Middlesbrough on the Move.

This will aim to explore whether it is possible to change the lifestyle of an entire town in terms of a healthy diet and increased physical activity. Diets high in fat, sugar and salt, and lack of physical exercise, are major reasons why obesity is on the increase in the UK, especially in the North-East.

One of the aims of the conference is to weigh up the success of initiatives around the world that have tried to encourage healthy eating.

Professor Carolyn Summerbell, who heads Teesside University's Centre for Food, Physical Activity and Obesity, said: "Obesity is a real problem here in the North- East, and this meeting will pull together policy initiatives, research findings and practical strategies to combat the problem in future generations, both locally and nationally.

"Discussing ideas from countries in better and worse situations than ourselves, in terms of obesity prevalence, will bring a new perspective to our work in the UK."

One of speakers will be Professor Shiriki Kumanyika, from the University of Pennsylvania, who will focus on social changes that have led to the obesity epidemic, and why ethnic minority groups and disadvantaged communities have been hit the hardest.

Speakers will also include Professor John Wilkinson, of the North- East Public Health Observatory Teesside, who will talk about population obesity monitoring, and Professor David Hunter, of Durham University, who will consider whether Government initiatives have had much impact on the health of the nation.