Is this a better alternative to gastric bypass surgery—or just another crazy weight-loss trend?

By By Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal
Updated: April 17, 2017

We live in a world where "diet" has become a dirty word. And of course, it is-you think diet and visions of deprivation, food that tastes like sandpaper, and utter misery dance in your head. But the times are a-changin' because the anti-diet is on the rise, and according to a 2015 survey, sales of diets and diet products are on the decline. And diet pills, once considered the magic cure for those last stubborn 10 pounds, are down by 20 percent. Yet, weight-loss surgeries such as gastric bypass, banding, or sleeves are more popular than ever. And studies suggest that most bariatric surgery patients are successfully maintaining their weight loss-while those on a more traditional diet plan gain the weight back within three years. But, if you're (understandably) apprehensive of surgery, there's a new product on the market which may have the benefits of bariatric surgery-but in pill form.

The Obalon Balloon System is the first and only swallowable, FDA-approved balloon system for weight loss. Typically (and under doctor supervision) you swallow three pills over a three-month period. The pill transforms into a balloon that takes up space in your stomach, causing you to eat less because you already feel "full." Proponents say that you'll feel just as satiated as you would after a huge meal because you're tricking your brain. If this sounds too good to be true, know that this is by no means a quick fix. You should not consider this option unless you are mildly to moderately obese with a body mass index between 30 and 40. (Remember, though, that BMI isn't everything.) This isn't for someone who just wants to eat less. (Face it, everyone has had a binge-eating Netflix situation they've regretted later.) According to Jonathan Cohen, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at NYU, and creator of the Kips Bay Integrative Weight Management Program, the ideal candidate is "a person who is not quite a candidate for bariatric surgery or really does not want to undergo a surgical procedure." And he emphasizes that anyone who wants to use the pill to lose weight must truly be committed to making major diet and lifestyle changes. Once you've swallowed the pill, that's when the hard work begins.

So, what exactly happens if you decide to take these balloon pills? For starters, you're looking at a six-month commitment and treatment plan. You swallow the capsule in your doctor's office and then the doctor inflates it (not exactly the "magic bean" idea you had!)-you're awake and can go back to work and normal life activities immediately. Your doctor will have you swallow a second balloon capsule one month later and a third two months after that. All balloons are removed six months after the first capsule is swallowed-but beware, removal requires a minor endoscopic procedure, in which narrow tube-like instrument is passed through the mouth into the esophagus and stomach to retrieve the balloons. You'll be lightly sedated.

For those who have tried Obalon, the results have been pretty positive-the average weight loss (when used with a diet and exercise program) is between 15 and 50 pounds. And on average, 89.5 percent of the total weight lost was maintained after one year.

However, it's not a commitment that should be taken lightly, as the system isn't currently covered by insurance and could set you back as much as $9,000. If you decide to have it, you should think of it as an investment in your long-term health and well-being. "It needs to be done with great motivation on the part of the patient, their support system, and their care providers," says Dr. Cohen.

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