What’s ‘Lap Band Surgery,’ And Which Americans Are Joining Chris Christie To Have It Done?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has gone public about the fact that he secretly underwent lap band surgery in February, not long after his 50th birthday, at the encouragement of his family and friends. The governor’s weight has come under constant media scrutiny throughout his time in politics. “I’ve struggled with this issue for 20 years,” Christie told the New York Post. “For me, this is about turning 50 and looking at my children and wanting to be there for them.”

So what’s a lap band procedure, and how common is Christie’s decision to address his weight with surgical intervention? In fact, the governor — who says he has already lost 40 pounds — opted for an increasingly popular weight loss surgery among Americans struggling to combat epidemic rates of obesity.

Lap bands, which were first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2001, are considered to be the least traumatic type of weight loss surgery. Unlike gastric bypass procedures, which permanently reduce the capacity of the stomach, lap band surgeries are reversible. The procedure involves fitting a plastic belts around a patient’s stomach, creating a small pouch that can only hold a certain amount of food. That allows the patients to feel fuller sooner and prevents them from overeating. Since the diameter of the lap band is adjustable, patients’ stomach capacities can be adjusted to suit their needs, and some people gradually move back toward a normal stomach capacity as they lose weight. If the lap band needs to be removed for any reason, the stomach will return to its normal size without any lasting side effects.

Gastric bypass has long been the most popular weight loss surgery. But lap band surgery, touted as a safer and less invasive option, has steadily grown in popularity since it was first introduced. Between 2004 and 2007, its use rose from 7 percent to 23 percent. And in 2011, the FDA approved the lap band procedure for an expanded population of Americans, lowering the recommended body mass index (BMI) needed to qualify for getting a lap band and allowing even more people to pursue the surgery.

Patients who opt for the lap band typically take a longer time to lose all of the weight, but some studies have suggested they’re more likely to keep it off than the patients who undergo gastric bypass. A recent study found that one year after undergoing the procedure, nearly 85 percent of the lap band patients had lost at least 30 percent of their excess body weight, and about 66 percent of the patients were no longer considered obese. Most importantly, the obesity-related health conditions improved for many of the subjects of the study — 64 percent of those with high cholesterol, 59 percent of those with high blood pressure, and 85 percent of those with diabetes all saw better health outcomes after using the lap band for a year.

Americans may only undergo a lap band procedure after they’re unable to attain a healthy weight through diet and exercise, so the lap band is often considered to be a medically necessary procedure. Last year, about 90 percent of the lap band surgeries in the U.S. were at least partially covered by insurance, and some insurers will cover the full cost of the procedure. Since the health costs associated with obesity can add up, investing in an intervention method can be a smart move for health providers. Addressing health issues related to obesity currently accounts for 21 percent of the country’s health care spending, and represents the main driver of U.S. medical costs.

The news about Christie’s recent surgery, then, may come as welcome news to some of his critics — some of whom have speculated that his size could make him “unfit” to hold public office because it increases his chance of serious medical problems. Americans now believe obesity is a bigger public health issue than smoking, a reality that has been reflected in the media attention surrounding Christie’s weight. The governor has responded forcefully to questions about his obesity-related health issues, criticizing suggestions that he hasn’t been taking his weight seriously. “The idea that somehow, you know, I don’t care about this — of course I care about it. And I am making the best effort I can,” Christie said during an appearance on David Letterman last February.