Popularity of Weight Loss Surgery for Teens Grows Despite Risks

OBESEAt 15, Jeff was 5’8″ tall and weighed 433 pounds. Neither restricting the food he ate nor raising his activity level had stopped his steady weight gain.

A call from a concerned school nurse caused his parents to consider weight loss surgery for their obese teen.

What is Bariatric Surgery?

Bariatric surgery is just one step in the weight loss process. According to Kidshealth from Nemours, doctors only recommend it if they’re convinced an obese individual is willing and able to make a lifelong effort at weight loss.

The history of bariatric surgery began about 40 years ago. Doctors noted that patients with parts of the stomach or intestines removed for disease usually lost a considerable amount of weight after each surgery despite what they ate. Weight loss surgery today either reduces the size of the patient’s stomach or reroutes food eaten for absorption of fewer calories.

Surgeons usually perform this surgery only for teens who are severely obese and older than 14. This equates to having a body mass index (BMI) higher than 40. For most teens, this means being at least 100 pounds overweight.

Types of Bariatric Surgery for Teens

Gastric bypass. This operation involves using staples to create a small pouch at the top end of the stomach. The pouch holds considerably less food – about one cup versus eight cups for a normal stomach. The pouch connects to the middle of the small intestine, causing fewer calories to be absorbed.

LAP banding. Also called gastric bypass, it shrinks the size of the stomach. A LAP band is a restrictive device surgeons use to make a small pouch. However, this reversible technique doesn’t restrict food absorption in the small bowel.


Screening must show that the patient understands the risks involved in weight loss surgery and is sufficiently motivated to stay focused on losing weight afterward. Surgery requires positive input from the patient, family, doctors, nutritionists and psychologists.

For teens who have repeatedly failed at traditional weight loss methods, surgery might be the last resort. In some cases, it can save lives.

According to the Washington Post, a 2007 study estimated that 2,744 teenagers had bariatric surgery between 1996 and 2003. Between 2000 and 2003, that number tripled. The Post reports that behavioral treatment for childhood obesity has a 95 percent failure rate over an extended period.

Part of the reason for the growing popularity of both types of bariatric surgery for teens is success in adult patients, who experience increased longevity and, in some cases, reversal of Type 2 diabetes.


Many doctors still consider weight loss surgery for teens very risky. Common side effects include pain, vomiting, diarrhea, acid reflux and regaining weight if the patient doesn’t learn modified eating techniques.

Dumping syndrome is a common issue linked primarily to gastric bypass. Because food moves too fast through the digestive tract, the teen experiences nausea, sweating and weakness.

Rare risks include bleeding, reaction to anesthesia and infection at the surgical site. If a leaky stomach or intestine develops, peritonitis can result. Bowel obstructions and blood clots in the lung are additional risks.

The potential emotional effects on teens are especially important. Some youngsters went into surgery believing it would completely change their lives, only to be disappointed.

Since teens tend to do whatever they want, skipping the prescribed diet and exercise programs. This can cause metabolic imbalance and sabotage success. Some doctors fear this surgery will become an attempted cure-all for teen obesity and that many patients will need repeat procedures.

Health insurance generally covers gastric bypass surgery. However, families often have to pay the full price of a lap-band procedure since many insurers consider it experimental.

Any decision about weight loss surgery for an obese teen should be made after a series of visits with health care professionals to make sure the youngster is sufficiently mature and otherwise a good candidate. It’s also important to determine that everyone’s expectations are realistic.