Why White Girls Are Getting More Weight Loss Surgery

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Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the rate of weight loss surgery in the U.S., including lap band and gastric bypass, went up by 700% between 2005 and 2007. But we already knew that the stomach-shrinking procedures have gained massive popularity. So what’s special about the new findings published in Pediatrics

Not only are the surgeries on the rise across the board, but they are increasing disproportionately among white teenage girls. Although the surgery is approved for those over 18 years old, 590 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 20 underwent surgery between 2005 and 2007, according to the new study; 80% of those patients were girls. Though only 28% of California’s obese teenagers are white, 65% of the teenage girls electing for the surgery were white. (More on Time.com: See a special on overcoming obesity)

MSNBC discussed a possible explanation, describing a culture in which overweight men are more socially accepted than overweight women. The article also discussed differences in cultural ideals, saying that white women felt pressure to be thin, whereas African-American and Latina teenagers held themselves to a curvier ideal:

Other weight-loss experts say that the trend that holds true outside of California. Dr. Thomas Inge, director of the surgical weight loss program for teens at the Cincinnati Children’s hospital, says that between 60 percent and 70 percent of the obese young people he treats are white females.

“Culturally, I do think there are racial differences in acceptance and even desirability of higher weights,” he said, noting that he bases that on conversations with families about what their ideal weight loss would be.

“I think it’s a lot easier to be Big John in the United States than it is to be Big Joan,” said Dr. John Morton, an associate professor of surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

But financial and logistical limitations could also contribute to the ethnic disparity.  Weight loss surgery costs an average of $17,000 and is not always covered by insurance.  Of the 590 teens included in the study, 100 had families who paid out of pocket. (More on Time.com: The Five Keys to Health Reform’s Success or Failure)

Studies show that minorities are less likely to be insured. While 16% of whites and 17% of Asians do not have health insurance, 21% of African-Americans and 32% of Latinos remain uninsured, according to 2009 Census data.

Some doctors are expressing concern over the trend, emphasizing that weight-loss surgery doesn’t work for everyone and that there are potentially serious side effects to surgery, such as risk of infection, blood clots and even death. HealthDay reports that some doctors worry that teenagers are not yet mature enough to make such drastic changes to their relationship with eating:

Dr. Edward Livingston, a gastric surgeon at the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, is concerned about the popularity of weight-loss surgeries and the surgeons themselves.

“These operations clearly help some people, but they’re trying to sell it as a solution for everybody,” he said. “If you follow the rules it works. But most people who get to be 400 pounds aren’t very good at following rules.”

While no deaths occurred as a result of these underage surgeries, the UCLA researchers concluded that a long-term study was needed to determine the safety and efficacy of such major surgery in obese teens.

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