A most misguided device

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To the long list of desperate and dangerous weight loss products, we can now add the AspireAssist, sadly approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week. The device is marketed as a “minimally invasive” and “reversible” weight loss “solution” for “people with obesity.” Essentially, an aspiration tube is inserted into the patient’s stomach so that the patient can, after eating, empty the contents of their stomach into the toilet by pressing a button on the device. To critics such as me, this device sounds a lot like a bulimia machine.

The AspireAssist has been through limited research; potential negative consequences remain unknown. It represents yet another example of how larger people are stigmatized and then preyed upon by manufacturers (abetted by the US government) who reinforce the belief that their bodies are inadequate and sell them various misguided products to help them attain the thin ideal. These dangerous products range from medications (remember phen/fen?) to surgeries, and now a device to empty one’s stomach.

Dagan Vandemark, Program and Policy Coordinator of Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders, stated, “This is a medicalized, surgicalized imposition of bulimia on higher-weight bodies, telling folks that having an eating disorder is better than being fat.” Bariatric surgery is often touted as the solution to obesity. And yet, I have seen clients post-bariatric surgery who were no better off.

A number of compensatory behaviors, including vomiting, exercising, and laxative use, can qualify one for a diagnosis of bulimia nervosa according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). The only difference between these behaviors and the Aspire Assist is that the latter is medically prescribed.

Psychologist Deb Burgard has eloquently made the case that the behaviors society prescribes to help large patients lose weight are those same behaviors we diagnose as an eating disorder in lower weight patients. The Aspire Assist goes one step further by mechanizing bulimia nervosa. This device has a potential for the same kinds of weight loss abuse as do laxatives and diabetes medications.

The FDA press release lists among the potential side effects of the AspireAssist “occasional indigestion, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea.” The endoscopic surgical procedure to insert the tube includes potential problems ranging from a sore throat, bleeding, pneumonia, unintended puncture of the stomach, and death. Risks related to the stomach opening include infection and bleeding.

As someone who has treated patients with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder for many years, this concerns me greatly. Helping clients to stop purging when it involves a behavior as unpleasant as vomiting is difficult enough. The leverage clinicians use to help people stop purging involves the individual’s own shame and disgust as well as negative health consequences. It is appalling that we now have a device that makes it easier (and permissible) for people to remove food from their stomachs.

Additionally, to help clients break a bulimia cycle, clinicians help clients employ strategies to stop restricting and purging. Bingeing is often the hardest behavior to change. Clients who continue to purge give themselves permission to engage in bigger binges. The thinking is, “Since I am going to purge anyway, I’m going to go ahead and eat more and then get rid of it.” An important intervention is for clients to remove purging as an option; this makes binges easier to modify. Outfitting clients with a no-fuss purge device will only encourage more binge eating.

Eating disorders occur commonly enough; there is a shortage of adequately trained professionals to treat the current number of patients with eating disorders. Let’s not make the problem worse by inducing eating disorders in even more patients.

We need to stop preying on and oppressing people in larger bodies and leading them to believe they are a problem to be fixed. We need to stop subjecting them to insane procedures in an effort to conform to an unnecessary standard. No treatment for obesity has been shown to work long term. We need as a society to accept that people come in all shapes and sizes.