Childhood obesity continues to be an epidemic in the United States, and some overweight teens are turning to more extreme measures for quick weight loss. Rather than the traditional healthy eating and exercise routine, more and more young adults and teenagers are opting for weight loss surgery, especially stomach banding. A recent article in the New York Times by Anemona Hartocollis follows one young woman who went under the knife for the sake of losing weight.
There has been an explosion of weight loss surgeries recently, with about 220,000 operations per year, at the cost of over $6 billion. More young people are also being operated on, which is met with some skepticism by doctors who argue that their bodies are still in the process of going through changes. Also, long-term effectiveness is still in question.
“I think it’s pretty extreme to change the anatomy of a child when you haven’t even tackled the other elements,” said Dr. Wendy M. Scinta, a family practitioner in Manlius, a suburb of Syracuse, who specializes in pediatric weight loss. Unlike with older patients, she said, “there is not a huge rush to fix it or they will die.”
One to two percent of all weight-loss, or bariatric, operations are on patients under 21, but studies are under way to gauge the outcomes of surgery on children as young as 12. Allergan, the maker of Lap-Band, is seeking permission from the Food and Drug Administration to market to children as young as 14, four years younger than what is currently allowed.
Stomach banding, or laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding, constitutes about 39 percent of all bariatric surgeries. The risks of all the operations have declined, partly because surgeons are now more experienced and are using less-invasive techniques, but also because they are operating on thinner, healthier patients. But long-term results are still being studied.
A Belgian study of adult patients found that nearly half had their bands removed within 12 years for various reasons. Some of these reasons included not losing much weight, regaining what they had lost, frequent heartburn or vomiting, or the band slipped or perforated the stomach.
A German study found that 30 percent of patients needed new operations within 14 years, some because they wanted bands removed, and others because of complications like slippage.
Another study in Australia found that one-third of operations on teenagers required follow-up surgeries within two years, often because of “pouch dilation,” when the stomach above the band becomes enlarged, which can happen if the patient does not follow the regimen and tries to eat too much.
Diana Zuckerman, a psychologist and president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, believes that teenagers are bad candidates for gastric banding surgery as they are often immature, rebellious, and uninterested in long-term consequences.
Some experts also question the possibility of malnutrition because the patients’ shortened digestive tracts absorb fewer nutrients, which could affect development.
Shani Gofman, a teenager from Brooklyn, first learned about weight loss surgery from her pediatrician when she was 17 years old. Coming in at over 250 pounds at just 5-foot-1, she insisted that she could lose weight on her own through diet and exercise. Unfortunately, her pediatrician didn’t believe in her. After her doctor proposed weight loss surgery, she did attempt to lose weight on her own, but failed miserably and actually gained 30 pounds instead.
When Shani met with the bariatric surgeon, he informed her that post-surgery, she should expect to lose about 40 percent of her excess weight, or 70 to 80 pounds. That, of course, was if she followed the regimen.
After Shani had her surgery done, she did end up losing 20 pounds in the first 13 days, but complained of constant hunger. She said she also had to resist the temptations of unhealthy foods readily available all around her. When her surgeon advised food in moderation above all else, she told him that she is not good at moderation.
Three weeks later, Shani was down another eight pounds and had gone from a size 26 to a size 20. She also joined a gym and bought a swimsuit.
Shani did hit an obstacle when she took a trip to Israel with other teenagers. She found herself either getting sick or sitting in pain after every meal, as she was often eating on the run. She also found that junk food went down easier for her than healthier alternatives.
As it turned out, Shani gained back nearly half of what she had lost and is fighting constant hunger and slow progress. Her surgeon tightened her band to make food go down even slower. never actually revealed her current weight at the end of the article – not a promising sign.
Weight loss surgery for young people can be a very controversial topic of discussion and many believe that it is too extreme, compared to other methods such as weight loss camp. Do you believe weight loss surgery is a permanent solution? Should teenagers be allowed to have surgery done? We’d love to hear what you think about this topic.