Pediatric Obesity Treatment Options: Beyond Lifestyle Modification

Justin Ryder, PhD


July 19, 2022

Pediatric obesity is a serious problem, not only in the United States but worldwide. Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the epidemic of childhood obesity. Solutions for treating the millions of children and adolescents with obesity are desperately needed because prevention efforts over the past several decades have not been sufficient in slowing the steady rise in obesity prevalence.

Lifestyle modification, including dietary changes, increases in activity, and behavioral modification, are the cornerstone of any obesity treatment, but they alone are not powerful enough to treat obesity by itself in the vast majority of children and adolescents. This is because obesity is not a lifestyle choice; rather, it is a disease, and a disease that has a tremendous amount of biology driving individuals toward weight gain and the propensity toward weight regain if weight is lost.

Fortunately, the tools to treat the underlying biology driving obesity are becoming safer, more effective, and more widely used every year. The two most effective biology-based treatments for pediatric obesity are anti-obesity medications and bariatric surgery. These two treatments, when accompanied by lifestyle modification, have the potential to reduce not only body weight but also treat many other risk factors, such as prediabetes, diabetes, high blood pressure, poor cholesterol, liver disease, and sleep apnea, as well as others.

Rise in Anti-obesity Medications

Anti-obesity medications are developing at a rapid pace. Seven medications have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for adults, and three medications (phentermine, orlistat, and liraglutide) are now approved for children and adolescents.

The number of anti-obesity medications for use in children and adolescents is expected to expand to five, with semaglutide and phentermine-topiramate (Qsymia) both completing trials in adolescents in 2022. Each of these medications works by treating the biology that drives weight gain, whether it is decreasing impulsivity, reducing hunger and appetite hormone pathways, or improving energy regulation pathways. Weight loss at 1 year for currently FDA-approved medications in adolescents ranges from 3% to 6% on average, depending on the medications. The newer medications already FDA-approved in adults that will soon, hopefully, be available in pediatrics result in 10%-16% weight loss on average.

A common parent and patient question regarding anti-obesity medications is, "If I start an anti-obesity medication, how long will I need to be on it?" The simple answer is, "Probably for the rest of your life."

This can be a shock to hear, but obesity treatment is very similar to that of hypertension or diabetes. Using high blood pressure as an example: If a patient has high blood pressure (eg, 160/90 mm Hg), they will be prescribed a medication to treat it. Once blood pressure comes down to near-normal levels (eg, 120/80 mm Hg), a dose will be maintained, not removed, because that is the biological mediator keeping the blood pressure low. Removal of the medication would result in blood pressure going back to homeostasis (160/90 mm Hg in our example) in a short period of time).

The same can be said for obesity. For example, if a 16-year-old girl is prescribed liraglutide, a glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor agonist, and loses 10% of her body weight at 1 year, that is great success. Why would we remove the medication that is treating the underlying biology causing successful weight loss?

In short, we would not want to do that. Even if our example patient only maintained that 10% initial weight loss, that would be very successful, just like someone maintaining their low blood pressure. As medications begin to develop at a rapid pace and become more available to pediatric patients, the messaging and conversation around anti-obesity medications must continue to focus on obesity being a biological disease and not a behavior for treatment to be effective and not stigmatized.

Bariatric Surgery Most Effective Treatment for Pediatric Obesity

Currently, the most effective treatment for pediatric obesity is bariatric surgery. The two most commonly used surgical procedures today are the sleeve gastrectomy and gastric bypass. Sleeve gastrectomy works by removing 75%-85% of the stomach and creating a new stomach, called a "sleeve." Gastric bypass works by separating the stomach into two parts and connecting one part of the new stomach into the intestine.

Both surgeries are very effective at treating obesity in adolescents, with an average weight loss of 30%-35%. Surgery is not just a restrictive means of controlling body weight; it also changes key hormones for appetite and satiety that signal the brain. In fact, many of the same biological signals that are changed by surgery are the same signals being targeted by anti-obesity medications. Long-term outcome of bariatric surgery in adolescents, provided by Teen-LABS, show it to be safe and maybe even more effective than in adults for treating diabetes and hypertension, with similar weight loss.

Does Treatment Outweigh the Potential Risks?

Although obesity surgery and anti-obesity medications are more successful at treating obesity in children and adolescents than lifestyle medications, they do have some risks. Surgery, depending on the type of surgery, can cause nutritional deficiencies, reduce body mineral density, and is a life-changing medical procedure. Anti-obesity medications, depending on the type, can cause nausea and vomiting and increase heart rate — and because they are relatively new, we do not fully understand the long-term impact of continued use past 1 year.

However, an important question to ask is, "Do the risks of obesity surgery and anti-obesity medications outweigh the risk of having lifelong obesity?" The answer to me and many of my colleagues is, "Yes!" Although there are risks associated with the two best treatments for pediatric obesity, those risks under proper supervision of a medical professional far outweigh the risks of not properly treating obesity and allowing it to persist and get worse over many years to come. Obesity is a disease deeply rooted in biology, and we must use biology-based treatments to tackle this problem in children and adolescents, who deserve the best care and treatments possible.

For more diabetes and endocrinology news, follow us on Twitter and Facebook

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.