September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and parents have been weighing in to ask me about the benefits of weight loss surgery for their teenager who is significantly overweight. Let me scale up some information on this topic.

The Statistics

One-to-two percent of US teenagers are severely obese. While sticking to a doctor-approved diet and exercise may be what it takes for some teens who are severely overweight to lose weight, for others, it is just not enough. This can prompt an interest in weight loss surgery, which has become more common in adults and is now being considered as an option for teens. 

What does this surgery involve?

Weight loss surgery reduces the size of the stomach to restrict the amount of food one can eat comfortably, creating a sense of feeling fuller sooner.

How can you tell if your teen is a candidate for weight loss surgery? A teen who is obese must show the maturity to make this decision, meaning the decision is only made after your teen has moved through puberty – not just physically but emotionally and intellecutally.  They may also be experiencing metabolic complications of their obesity, such as diabetes or hypertension. While these complications can increase their need for this surgery, a teen will need to be healthy enough, despite these complications, to undergo the surgery.

A teen who is obese needs to understand fully their need to comply with a pre-surgery regimen that includes these requirements:

  • Strict adherence to a daily diet and exercise plan
  • Taking medicines and vitamins regularly before and after the surgery
  • Not missing scheduled appointments pre- and post-surgery

If they cannot comply with this regimen, the surgery will not provide the intended result and they will likely not be candidates for this operation. 

Are there risks to this surgery?

Yes. After surgery, a patient may experience belly pain after eating if they eat too much or too fast.  Other complications, though not very common, can include bleeding, infection, a blood clot in the legs or lungs, and bowel obstruction. 

Less serious side effects of the surgery include vomiting, diarrhea, and heart burn (if they eat too quickly or too much). There are also the emotional side effects, such as how a teen will react to a new healthier relationship with food or a potential identity crisis with a new, thinner body.

Hopefully tips like these will be easy to digest when it comes to knowing more about the benefits and risks of weight loss surgery for your teen.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and MyNBC 5, or visit the “First with Kids” video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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