Millions of children and teens live with obesity in the United States, and weight-loss surgery is becoming a more common way to treat it, new research shows.
The number of metabolic and bariatric surgeries completed among youth ages 10 to 19 has been on the rise since 2016, according to data published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics. The trend held strong in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, even as the number of weight-loss surgeries among adults dipped.
Between 2020 and 2021, the number of weight-loss surgeries among youth jumped 19%.
Childhood obesity is a “serious problem” in the US, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It affects about 1 in 5 children and teens – nearly 15 million between ages 2 and 19. And severe obesity, which is when an individual’s body mass index is at least 20% higher than what is considered obese, is becoming especially prevalent.
Metabolic and bariatric surgeries alter parts of the stomach and intestines in ways that affect how the body absorbs food. They can lead to changes in food intake, as a person may feel less hungry and more full.
These weight-loss surgeries have historically been underutilized because of barriers to access, including low referral rates from pediatricians and poor insurance coverage, according to the authors of the new research.
But earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics published new guidelines for the treatment of obesity – the first update in 15 years. The new guidelines urge prompt use of behavior therapy and lifestyle changes and, for the first time, recommend surgery and medications for some young people. Teens with severe obesity in particular should be evaluated for surgery, they say.
“This data shows us that adolescents and their families are indeed interested in pursuing surgery as a treatment option if they are given access and a good candidate,” said Sarah Messiah, professor and pediatric obesity researcher at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health and co-author of the new research.
“Many studies show that cardiometabolic disease risk factors track strongly from childhood into adulthood,” she said, and surgery is a safe and effective treatment option that allows adolescents to age into adulthood more healthily.
Childhood obesity is more prevalent among certain populations, including Black and Hispanic youth, according to the CDC.
The new data shows that weight-loss surgery increased more than twice as much as average among these populations, up 42% among Back youth and 53% among Hispanic youth between 2020 and 2021.