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Is Liposuction the Answer to Global Obesity?

17/02/2014 13:37 GMT | Updated 19/04/2014 10:59 BST

Put the flags out. The recession is over. Austerity's a thing of the past. How do we know? Because more people than ever are going under the knife, that's how. Forget employment statistics, the housing market or even the size of bankers' bonuses. Apparently one of our strongest economic indicators is the number of people having cosmetic surgery.

While the latest figures from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons have yet to be released, the corresponding UK-based body - the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons - revealed its 2013 statistics earlier this month.

"Both the UK and the British public seem to be well on the way to regaining their shape with the most impressive rise in demand for cosmetic surgery we have seen since the onset of the recession in 2008," cheered Rajiv Grover, consultant plastic surgeon and BAAPS president.

Impressive isn't the word. Overall, the number of cosmetic procedures carried out in the UK last year rose by 17 percent. Breast augmentation: up 13 percent (a remarkable recovery following the PIP implant scandal of 2011). Face and neck lifts: up 13 percent. Rhinoplasty (nose jobs): up 17 percent. And there's every possibility that the US figures for 2013 will be similar, if not even more impressive.

Most astonishing was the massive 41 percent rise in the number of liposuction procedures. But perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised. Just a month before the BAAPS report was published, the Overseas Development Institute released its own, somewhat more sobering, statistics, claiming one in three people worldwide are now overweight or obese. Unsurprisingly, North America claims the highest rate with 70 percent of adults classed as overweight. The UK isn't far behind with 64 percent.

So no wonder liposuction - with its promise of a quick, fat-busting fix - is so popular (last year the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons declared it the most widely requested cosmetic procedure on the planet).

But it's not just women who can't resist the lure of lipo. Men are being targeted too. Take Vaser Liposuction, for instance, a more recent procedure that promises to sculpt your muscles while blasting unwanted fat. Think of it as six-pack surgery, ideal for the man who doesn't have the time or patience for sit-ups.

Of course cosmetic surgery has many critics who complain practitioners take advantage of people's body anxieties, while many think nothing of touting liposuction as the answer to all our weight-loss struggles. It's not exactly a hard sell. After all, who in their right mind would choose to lose 2lb a week by eating healthily and exercising when you can drop up to 10lb instantly with no effort at all, simply by having a spot of liposuction?

There again, any reputable cosmetic surgery practitioner will tell you liposuction is no replacement for regular exercise and a healthy diet. Neither is it a treatment for obesity, since it works best for stubborn areas of fat - those wobbly bits that are impossible to shift, no matter how much weight you lose.

The problem is the disclaimers are all too often hidden in the small print. And let's face it, most people aren't very good at checking the small print.

And while it may be quick, liposuction is far from an easy option. The procedure itself is neither simple nor pain free. Imagine having a 3mm-diameter needle jabbed into your skin and shoved around with some force while sucking out up to five litres of flab. If that doesn't make you feel queasy, you're probably a surgeon yourself (or you've seen too many episodes of CSI). Following the operation, the pain can be excruciating and the bruising severe. The swelling alone can take up to six months to settle down.

Then there are the associated risks, including ruptured abdomen or bowel, perforated spleen, severe infection, blood clots/DVTs, nerve damage and scarring. And if too much fat and fluid is removed during the operation, causing a rapid drop in your blood pressure, it could prove fatal (the liposuction mortality rate is one in around 5,000 people).

But all that pain and suffering is worth it, right? Probably not, say researchers writing in the journal Obesity, who discovered fat removed by liposuction takes just one year to come back. Granted, it doesn't return to the area where you had it sucked out. It comes back somewhere else. In other words you could end up trading your saddlebag thighs for bingo wings or a muffin top just one year later - a caveat you're unlikely to find in any glossy cosmetic surgery brochure.

Economic recovery or no economic recovery, that hardly sounds like a wise investment, does it?