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The Skinny on the Weight Loss Balloon


With beach season now in full swing, it’s not surprising that the latest weight loss balloon has been making headlines. The newest balloon, known technically as an intragastric balloon, is a space-occupying device which is placed in the stomach by swallowing a pill, and then inflated – a new design for this type of device. While not yet approved for use in the United States by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this device is available in the United Kingdom.

The idea behind it – and others that came before it – is that the balloon will take up room in the stomach as a way to help patients curb their eating habits by making them feel fuller, sooner. 

In a recent FOX29 Good Day Philadelphia interview, Noel Williams, MD, FRCSI, director of the Penn Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program, said “that [fullness] is there all the time, so that when you eat food, you stop short of the amount of food you would normally eat.”

Think about it: when you’re hungry your stomach feels empty, and you want to fill it. But with an intragastric balloon, you won’t experience those same hunger pangs, because your belly is already full – at least for a few months.

But as with any weight loss technique – whether a new diet, a fitness plan, or a medical device – there will be questions about safety and effectiveness.

In this case, those who qualify—only the most severely obese patients with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 27—might be asking, what happens if the balloon deflates or bursts while in the stomach?

Williams notes that if the device should rupture, patients will lose that full feeling with smaller portions, indicating the balloon is no longer working effectively. And in one case, a blue die is added to the saline solution so that it if does burst, the patient’s urine will change color alerting them to see their doctor.

Two other devices were approved by the FDA – perhaps not so coincidentally – in the summer of 2015. One is a round silicone balloon which is placed into the stomach through the mouth – while deflated – via a minimally invasive endoscopic procedure – and then it’s filled with a specific amount of saline based on the patient’s body structure. The other is very similar, but the biggest difference is that this system consists of two attached balloons that are filled and sealed separately. 

So we know there are different kinds of devices, and there are some risks, but are these intragastric balloons really effective?

Studies have shown that there are short term weight loss benefits. Specifically, a 2013 study of a device called the ReShape Duo concluded that patients who used the device for six months saw an average weight loss of 27 percent of their entire body weight. But what’s to say that using one of these devices for three to six months will help keep the weight off for the next six months, or even the next twelve.

Williams added that there is limited research to support the long-term effects of these devices, stressing that “without long-term follow-up, there will be no basis for evaluating whether or not these therapies will help patients for years to come.”

And one of the more obvious, outstanding questions, as pointed out by the Chris Murphy the co-host of GoodDay Philadelphia, is whether patients will return to their former eating habits after the device is removed.

Ultimately, Williams said “the idea is that eating behaviors will change during the months that the balloon is in the stomach. The goal is that patients will have learned to consume smaller portions and will continue doing so even without the device.”

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