Amanda Baron says she doesn’t remember the first time someone made fun of her for being fat. What she will never forget, however, is the litany of taunts she has endured throughout much of her young life. Like the time her classmates asked if she went on vacation to Alaska to be with her own kind: the beluga whales. Or those weeks during her freshman year of high school when a student pelted her with crackers and grapes while she ate lunch in the cafeteria. Despite her outgoing personality, “I don’t have the greatest self-image,” says Baron. “I’ve battled my weight my entire life.”
Baron began dieting as a chubby first grader; since then she has tried everything from three stints at fat camp (which she first attended at age 13, after tipping the scales at 200 lbs.) to working with personal trainers, nutritionists and psychologists. And yet despite these efforts, the 5’9″ Baron’s weight kept creeping up, eventually hitting 247 lbs. “We thought she’d grow out of it,” says her mother, Julie, 43, who owns a sports memorabilia store near their Rumson, N.J., home. “We kept waiting.”
This past June, however, the Barons decided they could wait no longer. With their daughter’s latest physical showing that she had high blood pressure and was at risk for diabetes, they allowed her to undergo weight-loss surgery. That’s a route a growing number of kids between the ages of 10-19 are taking: A recent study by researchers at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J., found that obesity surgery in that age group tripled between 2000 and 2003.
Some medical experts are wary about this increase, denouncing it as what registered dietician Sarah Krieger, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, calls a “quick solution” to a serious obesity problem among American youth. (See box.) But Baron’s parents are quick to discount such criticisms. “Amanda was at the point where she [was so discouraged], she no longer wanted to try to lose weight,” says her father, Bruce, 45, a lawyer, who points to genetics on his side of the family as a contributing factor in Baron’s obesity. (He is overweight; Baron’s mother and younger brother, Michael, 15, are not.) “Common sense tells you you need surgical intervention.” Echoes Baron’s surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Zitsman, director of Manhattan’s Center for Adolescent Bariatric Surgery at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian: “In her case, if she loses 75 to 100 lbs., she’s going to improve her health significantly. But she’s losing the weight battle. Let’s help her.”
On June 25 Dr. Zitsman—one of few doctors with FDA approval to perform this surgery on teens—fitted Baron with a gastric band around the upper part of her stomach to create a smaller food pouch, thereby drastically limiting how much she can eat. (The $25,000 cost of the surgery was covered by her family’s health insurance.) In the five months since, Baron has dropped 54 lbs. to weigh in at 193, gone from a size 20 to a 12, and no longer has high blood pressure. “I feel like I can walk and I’m not tired,” says Baron. “I can take deep breaths. I feel so much better.”
That isn’t to say there haven’t been a few hiccups along the way. Unable to properly digest more than half a cup of food at a time (like, say, cottage cheese for breakfast and half a turkey sandwich for dinner), Baron—who eats as many as five times a day—sometimes ends up vomiting if her portions are too large. “And if I eat too fast, I feel like I’m dying—like I’m having a heart attack,” she says.
She also has had her band tightened occasionally, when her weight loss has stalled. But after Baron hits her goal weight of 150 lbs.—which she hopes to do by her June graduation—the band will no longer have to be adjusted.
Throughout much of the rest of her life, Baron will be limited to the small meals she eats now. But being able to pile food on her plate isn’t the thing she most looks forward to anymore. “I’m excited,” she says, “to experience life as a happy individual.”