The Weight-Loss Pill That Turns Into a Balloon to Fill One's Stomach

A novel treatment in clinical trials
Spire Healthcare/Vimeo

This is the Obalon system. It is a pill that has a balloon inside. Obalon is a weight-loss device, marketed as an alternative to bariatric surgery, that claims to help people eat less and "push back from the table sooner."

Obalon begins to work when you swallow Obalon and it lands in your stomach. Obalon remains temporarily attached to a thin tube, through which doctors can inflate it. They then remove the thin tube, and the balloon stays in your stomach for up to three months, bobbing around like buoy in gastric waters. You can take up to three at a time, the manufacturers say.

The idea is that balloons partly fill your stomach to make you feel full, so you eat less. They are too big and buoyant to pass beyond the stomach. After twelve weeks, a doctor deflates the balloons and pulls them back out through your mouth.

Swallow the pill attached to the thin tube. (Spire Healthcare/Vimeo)
 
It's weird, but just swallow it.  
 
Down the throat
 
Down the esophagus
 
Into the stomach
 
Doctor pumps air through the tube to inflate the balloon
 
Doctor detaches the tube and pulls it out of your mouth
 
Orange food pours into the stomach. The balloon occupies space.
 
The balloon has made a friend.

“This balloon will act to educate [people] about portion size and retrain their brain and their mindset a little,” Dr. Sally Norton, a U.K. bariatric surgeon, told CBS News.

"Health experts warn that the balloon is not a magic pill."

My initial reaction was the same as that of fitness expert Tim Bean. This balloon procedure does not make the stomach smaller, and seems like it could possibly make it bigger. I'm intrigued by the idea but skeptical of its long-term effectiveness. It also costs £2,000 ($3,321).

The Obalon balloon pill is approved for investigational use only in the U.S. However, it is approved in the E.U. and is available in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain. What better way to see Europe than with expensive stomach balloons?

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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