At 319 pounds, Caitlin Dunnings endured years of torment from her high school classmates. Although she'd tried a number of diets, by her senior year, she weighed 361 pounds.
"I was teased a lot, so I came home and pigged out," said Dunnings, now 20 and a college student.
Last August, she underwent a duodenal switch procedure, a type of bariatric surgery that entails shrinking the size of the stomach. Since that time, she has lost 185 pounds.
"I lost weight and gained confidence in myself. It was like waking from a coma," she said.
Her mother, Rita, was also obese and followed her daughter's progress carefully. After witnessing Caitlin's dramatic weight loss, she decided to follow in her daughter's footsteps and had her own surgery done in April, although it was a different procedure.
"She saw how much weight I lost and how happy it made me, and she said she wants to me like me," Dunnings said. "She's already lost about 80 pounds."
Study: Surgery Leads to Healthier Lifestyles for Family, Too
But the impact of the women's surgery goes beyond their weight loss and personal satisfaction. Dunnings said their success motivated her father and brother to start eating right and thinking about their own waistlines, albeit without surgical intervention.
"My dad was like, 'Wow!'" Dunnings said. "My dad lost about 40 pounds, and my brother lost about 30 pounds. It's definitely a lot about eating patterns. We don't buy junk food anymore."
A new study published in Archives of Surgery suggests the Dunnings men are not the only ones to reap benefits from family members who undergo weight-loss surgery.
"We found that after surgery, patients lost a lot of weight, but obese adult family members lost a significant amount of weight as well and so did kids," said Dr. John Morton, a study co-author and director of minimally invasive and bariatric surgery at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif.
Morton and his colleagues followed 35 families of patients who had a specific gastric bypass procedure for one year. The patients and their families attended counseling sessions before and after surgery that taught them about the importance of adopting healthier eating habits and getting more physically active.
In addition to weight loss, adults reported better eating habits and less alcohol consumption, and children spent less time in front of a television or a computer and more said they were on a diet.
"Part of it had to do with the education they received through counseling," said Morton.
"When they come in and listen, they learn what obesity is and that a lot of their medical problems are related to their weight, which has a big impact," said Dr. Nestor de la Cruz-Munoz, chief of laparoendoscopic and bariatric Surgery at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. He had no involvement with the new research.
Morton said that another big component was that the majority of patients in the study were women. Women often make the household decisions about what kind of food to buy and how to cook it.
"Often, I hear, especially from mothers, that they want bariatric surgery so that they can make the healthy choices for their families and help their children avoid the patient's own struggles with obesity," said Dr. Peter Liao, diirector of the Comprehensive Obesity Management Program at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Baltimore. Liao was also not involved in the study.
Obesity: A Family Affair
The study highlights the importance of making the battle against obesity a family matter, since Morton said previous research has suggested that obesity is a social contagion, meaning that associating with an obese person is more likely to lead to obesity.
"Obesity is a family disease," said Morton.
"This study tells us that individual intervention is not going to be successful, especially with children, so we have to target whole families," said Dr. Mitchell Roslin, chief of obesity surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
Morton said more research is underway to determine the effects of bariatric surgery on families over the longer term, results other experts are eager to see.
"These operations can get anybody to lose weight, but without education and diligence, there will be a high recidivism rate," said Roslin. In turn, this could lead family members to re-gain weight as well.
Roslin also said it's important to remember that the effects may not be the same among people of different ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, so this same sort of family-targed intervention may not be as effective.
The adult family members in the study, de la Cruz-Munoz added, only lost a minimal amount of weight although it was scientifically significant. But, he said, the fact that they introduced healthier behaviors is an encouraging finding.
More than a year later, Caitlin Dunnings is only about 13 pounds away from her target weight and her mother is also getting closer to her goal. The family's eating habits have totally changed, and Caitlin is confident her father and brother can continue with their non-surgical weight loss.
"We have great family support. They like the energy we have now and they want more energy. They see how happy we are and they're keeping it up."