There’s a new weight-loss tool on the block, and if you ask us, it’s pretty terrifying. It’s called The Obalon balloon pill, and, as the title suggests, it’s a pill…with an inflatable balloon inside. That’s right, a balloon.
Here’s how it works: First, you swallow the pill, and it lands in your stomach, all while it remains attached to a thin tube. Once it’s floating around down there, doctors use the tube to inflate the balloon, and then they remove the tube—leaving the balloon in your stomach. It can stay in there for up to three months, and you can take up to three balloon pills at a time.
After three months are up, a doctor deflates the balloon and pulls it out through your mouth (side note: OMG). The whole idea here is that the balloon makes you feel more full—after all, you don’t exactly have as much room for a second piece of cake when you have an entire balloon in your stomach.
So of course, the obvious question: Is it safe? Right now, the pill is approved in the U.S., but for investigational use only (so you can’t buy it, and the company can’t market it in this country). It is, however, approved on all counts in the E.U. But David Katz, M.D., author of Disease Proof, says the pill has potentially harmful side effects. “Any time you put a foreign object into the gastrointestinal tract, the two big worries are obstruction and rupture,” he says.
“In terms of obstruction, it could get lodged in your stomach and block the wall from the stomach to the intestine, which could cause anything from vomiting to death. Then as far as rupture goes, the balloon could push against the wall of your stomach and stretch it or stretch the esophagus. That irritation could cause inflammation, which could cause internal bleeding, infection, or even an ulcer.” These are all unlikely possibilities, Katz says, but still—they could happen.
The better option, says Katz, is to skip out on the pill entirely. “There are three big reasons that it’s simply not the smartest way to fix the problem of eating badly,” he says. The first is that it only helps you not each as much—it doesn’t help you eat well. “It’s more important to focus on eating the right foods in the first place to fuel your body, and this balloon pill does not teach you how to do that,” he says. Second, Katz warns that it could damage your stomach lining—which could ultimately cause you to eat more over time.
“The lining of the stomach contains regulators that help you feel full. So since the balloon rubs against the lining of your stomach, I’m guessing that your feel-full signals could get desensitized over time, making you eat more in the long run.”
And finally, if you look at similar alternative weight-loss methods, like bariatric surgery, you’ll see that they don’t guarantee a lifelong healthy weight—so this doesn’t, either. “Some people who’ve gotten bariatric surgery still overeat,” says Katz. “So if they can out-eat an entire surgery, others would probably be able to out-eat a balloon.”