At the age of 16, Brittany Lewis was severely obese and had already tried several well-known weight loss programs. It seemed that her best option might be weight loss surgery – a treatment that had traditionally been used only in adults whose obesity caused serious health problems or put them at risk for these conditions.

Lewis, who attended East Alton-Wood River High School, found life as a teenager difficult as her weight approached almost 300 pounds. Walking around the mall with friends made her short of breath. She couldn’t participate in sports. And, although most students treated her with respect, there were always a few that made remarks behind her back.

“I tried Weight Watchers, Atkins, cutting down on calories, eating smaller portions,” she says. “I would lose some weight but I would always gain it back.”

Lewis’ research on weight loss surgery led her to the Washington University Bariatric Surgery Program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which recently began performing surgery on teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19.

Bariatric surgery is recommended for the treatment of severe obesity in adolescents with a Body Mass Index above 40, particularly for those who have obesity-related medical conditions. They must also have attempted a structured dietary weight loss program for at least six months without success. They are evaluated and approved for surgery by a behavioral therapist, a dietitian and a physical therapist.

Current procedures offered to adolescents include laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding, laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy and laparoscopic gastric bypass.

 “I weighed 298 pounds and didn’t really have any medical problems,” Lewis says. “I had a hard time breathing and walking. I just wanted to get it done before I started having problems.”

In June 2010 – at the age of 18 – Lewis underwent a laparoscopic gastric banding procedure performed by a Washington University bariatric surgeon. Twently months later, she had lost 140 pounds. And she has felt much healthier since having the surgery. “I feel amazing,” she says. “I have a lot more energy.”

Weight loss surgery requires lifelong changes in lifestyle and diet. At a young age, bariatric patients such as Lewis must start a rigorous program for eating, drinking and exercise and continue for the rest of their lives. This includes eating only three small meals a day, eating only health foods, giving up soda and exercising at least 30 minutes a day.

In the past, only a few centers in the United States performed weight loss surgery in adolescents – frequently as part of research studies. But the surgery is becoming more common in obese teens and new research suggests it may be more effective than behavioral programs alone.

Lewis’ father Lee has noticed a big change in his daughter, who is now a freshman at Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey, Ill.  “She’s a much happier person now than she was before she had the surgery,” says Lee Lewis. “It was hard for her to walk, being that overweight. Now she wants to get out and run all the time with her friends.”