Think Twice Before Trying This Potentially Dangerous Weight-Loss Device

Obesity is becoming an increasing problem in our nation. With 69 percent of adults and 32 percent of children meeting the criteria for being overweight or obese, researchers have been trying to find ways to combat the obesity epidemic. One Pennsylvania-based company thinks it might have the answer.

Aspire Bariatrics introduced AspireAssist, a medical device that serves as a food purge pump, in 2013. And it just received the FDA’s premarket approval. It consists of a pump attached to a hose that’s surgically implanted in the stomach. You eat a meal as normal, and 30 minutes later you open the valve and “drain” 30 percent of the food you just ate. The drainage process is supposed to take 5 to 10 minutes.

A jarring method to resort to, to be sure, but for those hoping to avoid gastric bypass it proves a useful tool. Individuals who used AspireAssist report about 9 percent more weight loss than those who use diet and exercise alone. But psychologists and medical doctors question whether the device is safe. There are three primary issues:

1. Like any medical device, the AspireAssist does have the potential for unwanted and adverse side effects. The manufacturer reports that only about 3.5 percent of people experience severe adverse side effects, but they recognize that mild side effects may be more common.

2. The machine promises rapid weight loss, which may exacerbate a “quick fix” diet mentality. Research suggests that those who use “quick fix” methods of weight loss typically gain back the weight they lost—and then some. This calls the long-term effectiveness and physical safety of the device into question.

3. Reporters and psychologists are beginning to call the psychological safety of the device into question, calling it “sanctioned bulimia.” In fact, in some circles the device is being nicknamed “BulimiaAssist.” Why? The basic premise behind the device is that it offers users a way to purge some of the unwanted calories you just consumed. There has been some concern that the AspireAssist will actually encourage more traditional purging behaviors common in bulimia nervosa once the device has been removed (it’s only good for 115 uses). Aspire Bariatrics, the manufacturer of the device, even advertises the device as a way to “reduce stress and anxiety around eating,” further calling the psychological safety of the device into question. (How much do you know about eating disorders?)

Aspire Bariatrics cautions that individuals who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder should not use the device; they haven’t fully addressed whether the device may trigger an eating disorder. They also warn patients that they will have to make lifestyle changes in order to see effectiveness. For example, patients are encouraged to take small bites of food and chew their food thoroughly to ensure the machine can effectively remove it. Some psychologists find this alarming, as many eating disorder patients use this same tactic to maintain caloric intake or reduce caloric intake (in the case of chewing and spitting).

To help alleviate some of these concerns, Aspire Bariatrics now offers “Lifestyle Counseling” to those who use AspireAssist. This counseling reportedly covers portion control, emotional eating, physical activity, and how to make healthier food choices. It is unclear who offers the training, however, and whether is it required for all patients. Psychologists are concerned that the use of health coaches rather than trained psychologists or dietitians may make matters worse.

If you’re suffering from obesity, should you ask your physician about AspireAssist? The device has been around for three years and Aspire Bariatrics reports 96 percent patient satisfaction, with 3.6 percent of patients reporting severe adverse side effects. As a psychologist, however, I would still urge caution. The AspireAssist is only 9 percent more effective, on average, than a healthy diet and exercise plan. The added risks of potential eating disorder symptomology and the side effect rate reported by the manufacturer make me urge caution before considering the device. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about effective, natural weight loss before seeking a medical device or surgical procedure. Research suggests that lifestyle changes, including a healthy diet and exercise, are still the most effective long-term healthy way to lose weight and maintain the loss.