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Bariatric surgery: More than weight loss

Puraj Patel, D.O.
for Henry Ford Health System
Despite the laundry list of ailments bariatric surgery can minimize or even cure, it should never be the first step patients take to improve their health.

When people hear the term "bariatric surgery," they often think about weight loss — and for good reason. In the early days of bariatric surgery, losing weight was the primary end goal of the procedure. But it turns out that surgical weight loss has far-reaching health benefits beyond fitting into skinnier jeans.

No one really talks about the impact of bariatric surgery on conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. In fact, few surgical procedures address as many health conditions at one time as bariatric surgery.

Puraj Patel, D.O.

Bariatric surgery basics

Bariatric surgery is a type of metabolic and weight-loss surgery. There are different types of bariatric surgery, including these two common ones: 

  • Gastric bypass: Gastric bypass surgery changes how your stomach and small intestine digest and absorb food. A surgeon uses staples to divide the stomach into two sections (upper and lower). The food you eat will go into the top section (also called the pouch), which is about the size of a golf ball. Then the surgeon connects part of your intestine to a small hole in the pouch so digested food bypasses portions of the small intestine. The end result: You feel full faster and absorb fewer calories.
  • Sleeve gastrectomy: During sleeve gastrectomy, a surgeon creates a small stomach pouch or sleeve to reduce the amount of food the stomach can hold. Most people who have this surgery also feel fuller faster and end up eating less. Unlike traditional gastric bypass surgery, this procedure does not involve the small intestine.

Both types of bariatric surgery have very low complication rates. Patients typically spend a day or two in the hospital and return to their usual activities within a week or two. But the real work begins when they head home and start living their new, healthier lifestyle.

Health conditions treated by weight-loss surgery

Obesity isn't just a matter of weighing too much. Instead, it's a chronic health condition that can affect every system of the body. There are a host of medical problems that are linked to being overweight and obese. Among the most debilitating:

I often wonder whether the number of people who could benefit from bariatric surgery would increase if we called it “diabetes surgery,” or “hypertension surgery,” or “avoiding knee replacement surgery.” The reality is, bariatric surgery can do all of those things.

The American Diabetes Association cites bariatric surgery as a primary treatment for diabetes management, in addition to medication. There is also plenty of research to suggest that bariatric surgery reduces the risk of heart attack among overweight and obese patients. It may also impact mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

Bariatric surgery should never be the first step

Despite the laundry list of ailments bariatric surgery can minimize or even cure, it should never be the first step patients take to improve their health. I know from firsthand experience. When I was a surgical resident and about 70 pounds overweight, I considered undergoing the surgery myself.

Bariatric surgery is not an easy fix. It's not a shortcut or a quick way of losing weight. It's actually the hard way out. I always encourage my patients to start with diet and exercise. To be successful, with or without surgery, patients first need to have some formal education in diet and lifestyle changes.

Over the course of several months, I decided to take the nonsurgical approach to weight loss while also caring for surgical and nonsurgical weight-loss patients. That's when I knew I wanted to specialize in bariatric surgery. I watched patients’ lives change for the better, and based on the literature, I knew we were also extending our patients' lifespans.

Who is a candidate for bariatric surgery?

Wondering if bariatric surgery could help you achieve better health? In general, surgeons only perform the procedure on people who meet the following criteria:

  • You have a body mass index (BMI) between 35 and 40 and you have one or more medical problems linked to overweight and obesity, including diabetes, hypertension or joint pain.
  • You have a BMI over 40.
  • You have tried nonsurgical approaches to lose weight. 

Whether you choose to go the surgical route or pursue diet and lifestyle changes without surgery, make sure you find a comprehensive, evidence-based program that meets patients where they are on their weight-loss journey and offers good support services.

Dr. Puraj Patel is a surgeon specializing in bariatric surgery and minimally invasive surgical procedures for digestive disorders at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. 

To find a doctor or learn more about the Center for Weight Management at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.
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