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Some obese teens turn to surgery

Jose Jimenez had surgery when he was 16 to help him lose weight.
Jose Jimenez had surgery when he was 16 to help him lose weight.

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Stomach surgery for obese teens.
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(CNN) -- Jose Jimenez used to weigh 350 pounds. Then last year, at the age of 16, he turned to a drastic measure to lose weight -- bariatric surgery, or what is sometimes known as stomach stapling.

"I wanted something that would work for me and I knew that the surgery would do that," Jose said.

With childhood obesity rates soaring, some teenagers are turning to the once adult-only surgery, a procedure that closes off parts of the stomach and, sometimes, intestines. This restricts the amount of food a person can eat and creates a fuller feeling with a much smaller portion.

In the seven months after his surgery, Jose lost 100 pounds and says he is still dropping weight.

Jose is one of the almost 15 percent of children who are overweight in the United States, triple what the proportion was two decades ago. Health officials say the numbers are only expected to get higher.

The surgery was performed on an estimated 40,000 U.S. patients in 2001, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Jose's mother said efforts to control his eating habits didn't help.

But critics say people who resort to the surgery are looking for a quick fix. Jose even admits his attempts at diet and exercise were half-hearted.

"Once in awhile I would try to get into an exercise habit but normally that ended up not working out," he said.

Some doctors question whether it is ethical to permanently alter a young person's body, especially if they haven't really tried to lose weight in a safer way, and whether a teenager is mature enough to commit to such a big decision.

"Are we comfortable subjecting a child to a life-threatening, life-changing surgical intervention?" asks Dr. David Ludwig with the Children's Hospital Boston.

Candidates for the surgery are typically severely obese, have a life-threatening health problem such as diabetes, and have obesity-related physical problems that result in difficulties walking or working.

As with any surgery, there are risks. Ten to 20 percent of patients need further surgery because of complications, and the NIH reports that death may occur in less than 1 percent of cases.

But Jose's surgeon, Dr. Louis Flancbaum with St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, says that when anyone weighs 350 pounds, studies have shown diet and exercise usually don't work and surgery really is the only solution.

Obese teenagers "already have diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol," Flancbaum said. "And they're just walking time bombs by the time they would get to be 30."

CNN correspondent Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.

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