June 18, 2012 at 2:00 PM ET
Amanda Rodriguez had weight problems from the minute she came into this world at a chubby 10 pounds. “I was always overweight, tall, and chunky,” Rodriguez said. “I never had a skinny day in my life.”
That all changed with the stomach shrinking surgery Rodriguez got two years ago, at age 17. Within days, the pounds started peeling off. Once topping the scales near 300 pounds, the 19-year-old is a much trimmer 186 now.
“I tried dieting and exercise before,” Rodriguez told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie. “And I lost some weight, but then I gained it back double.”
Rodriguez is part of a new trend: Doctors are offering weight-loss surgery to a much younger group of patients, kids in their teens. Up until now, doctors have been loath to suggest the surgery to teens, fearing that the risks of the operation might outweigh the benefits.
But a new study shows that the more severe type of bariatric surgery can yield dramatic weight loss in this age group.
Bariatric or weight-loss surgery commonly involves gastric banding (reducing the size of the stomach with an implanted medical device); sleeve gastrectomy or biliopancreatic diversion with duodenal switch (removing a portion of the stomach, which is irreversible); or gastric bypass (resecting and rerouting the small intestines to a small stomach pouch, also irreversible).
The study, which followed 890 morbidly obese teens across the nation who got either gastric bypass or gastric banding surgery, was published online in Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases. Researchers from the University of Miami found that one year after their operations, teens who got gastric bypass surgery lost almost twice as much weight as those who got the gastric banding procedure.
Teens in the study lost more than 66 pounds on average, the researchers reported.
“So it’s pretty clear from these results that the surgery can have a very strong impact on various quality of life issues for these patients,” the study’s lead author Sarah Messiah, a researcher at the University of Miami Health System, told TODAY.
Nevertheless, people need to realize the surgery isn’t for every overweight teen, said NBC chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman.
“Certainly we don’t want to tell every child and every adolescent that this is the first thing to do,” Snyderman said. “This is not a quick fix for obesity. This is really when your back is against the wall and you’re facing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and the inability to walk. Arthritis is a huge problem.”
For Amanda Rodriguez, the payoff has been much bigger than the 66-pound average weight loss enjoyed by the teens in the study. She’s lost more than 100 pounds since her life-changing surgery.
Prior to her operation, Rodriguez could barely move. “I wasn’t able to walk very far,” she told Guthrie. “I needed an elevator key to [get] up the stairs in my high school. I was barely able to breathe after walking.”
Tired of battling the social stigma of obesity, another teen, 17-year-old Megan Huffman, jumped at the chance to get a surgery that might help shed some of her 300 pounds.
“I was getting teased a lot, so it made me decide to do something about it,” Huffman told TODAY.
But patients don’t lose all their weight through surgery alone, Snyderman points out.
“Frankly, it’s learning to embrace food differently for the rest of your life,” she said. “It isn’t go in and have surgery and then drink milkshakes for the rest of your life. You have to embrace health and wellness in a way that a lot of adolescents have never had to think about.“
Surgery does make dieting much easier, Rodriguez said.
"Before on a night out, when my parents would order pizza I could eat an entire pie by myself, not just a slice," she told Guthrie. "Now I can eat one slice, maybe two."
Rodriguez said her doctor told her to think of the surgery as a tool.
“You still need to do the mental preparation," she said. "And you still need to figure out what you’re going to do on your diet. You still need to exercise. So it’s definitely not the easy way out.”
Still, Rodriguez feels it’s been worthwhile.
“I’m dating and all those things,” she told Guthrie with a big smile. “I used to see a therapist. Now I do not see a therapist anymore."
For Huffman, the results after three months have already been dramatic with a loss of 50 pounds. It’s even looking like she might get her pre-surgery wish.
“I’d like to fit into my prom dress senior year,” she told TODAY.
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to msnbc.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of the new book "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic.”