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FDA approves new eating disorder method, er, weight-loss device

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

Something tells us this stomach vacuum is not the solution to weight loss

Confession #1: I struggled with an eating disorder for many, many years. Confession #2: I was really, really bad at it. But now, thanks to a new weight-loss device recently approved by the FDA, everyone can be great at eating disorders! Sigh.

Something tells us this stomach vacuum is not the solution to weight loss
Image: AspireAssist

Perfectionism was kind of my thing. And while I can't speak for every girl who's ever had anorexia, I think that's a pretty common trait among sufferers. So, it was my fondest dream to be the absolute best at starving. (Which is, frankly, the worst.) But my body's will to survive and achieve puberty was stronger than my will to be thin; and eventually, after years of "being good" by following the million little rules I'd set for myself around food, my body rebelled. I binged. It felt so good and so awful at the same time.

After that, I never could quite get back to my stringent pattern of food restricting, and the binges became more common, creating a vicious cycle of restricting and binging that I would later find out is what happens to a lot of people with anorexia. But in the moment, I was desperate to end the binges or at least "fix" them, and so I turned to purging. Except, it turns out I was as "bad" at bulimia as I was at anorexia and try as I might, I could never vomit.

This, of course, was actually a really good thing for my mental and physical health and was part of the catalyst that caused me to seek treatment and eventually maintain recovery. But at the time, my failure to be able to get rid of all the fattening foods felt like the ultimate failure. So, when I first went into treatment, I was fascinated by the girls with the feeding tubes that went directly into their stomach. First, I was jealous they'd managed to get so thin that they needed a feeding port. Second, I was impressed that they had found a sanctioned way to purge. Yep, just like you can put food into a feeding port, you can also get food out if you work it just right.

More: Eating disorders are a mental illness — not a choice

That was never an option for me — I was never ill enough to need a feeding tube, and thank heavens for that. But this option is suddenly back on the table courtesy of a new device just approved by the FDA. The AspireAssist is a port implanted in a patient's side that allows them to remove undigested food directly from their stomach and empty it into the toilet. And it works: In preliminary studies, it slashed about 30 percent of calories from the person's diet and tripled the percentage of weight lost. However, if it sounds like purging, well, that's because it is — just now with a doctor's permission.

The FDA cautions, of course, that the device is definitely not for people with eating disorders. You have to be at least 22 years old and have a BMI of over 35 to be considered for one. But I'd ask if it's possible to get to a BMI of over 35 without having some type of unhealthy relationship with food? I understand that my experience with anorexia isn't the same as everyone's experience with weight, but I do think that starving and binging are two sides of the same coin. And binge eating is the most common eating disorder by far, with hundreds of thousands of people suffering every day. So, now I'm supposed to believe that the cure for binge eating is teaching people how to (medically) purge.


The FDA says that it's not meant to be a permanent solution to obesity but rather a stop-gap to help people lose weight while they learn healthier food habits. They add that the side effects are considerably less than bariatric surgery, currently the most common medical intervention for weight loss. And that's probably true. From my experience, however, (and again, I'm not speaking for anyone but myself) learning to listen to my body about what nutrients it needed and how hungry it was, was the key to overcoming my disordered eating. And there's just no way to do that if you are literally sucking the food out of your stomach.

More: Clean eating saved me from my eating disorder

It took a lot of tears, work and learning to just sit with my discomfort, but eventually I learned to respect my body by feeding it when it was hungry and stopping when it was full. (I also had to learn to be OK with existing at a weight higher than what I think is "ideal," but that's a topic for another day.) It's a concept that seems so simple on the surface but can be excruciatingly hard to execute in a society that is filled with ways to help us ignore our bodily signals. And the AspireAssist feels like just one more way to stop people from listening to their bodies at best and promoting the shockingly unhealthy ideal of being "the girl who can eat whatever she wants and never gain weight" at worst.

I don't have the solution to obesity. Heck, I'm not even sure if there needs to be a solution for weight gain, especially if the person is all-around healthy. However, I am sure that whatever the answer is, a stomach vacuum isn't it.

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