Is Gastric Bypass Surgery Safe?

The Center for Disease Prevention says that more than one third of Americans are obese, and even more are overweight. More than 500,000 Americans have some type of weight loss surgery every year, and over the course of trial and error, gastric bypass has been identified as one of the most effective routes to surgically lose weight.

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Let’s say you’re thinking about having a gastric bypass. You might be hung up on the end result, thinking about how fast you could drop the weight. But is gastric bypass surgery safe? There are lots of things to think about before making this expensive, drastic and irreversible decision.

What’s actually done in a gastric bypass surgery?

Gastric bypass surgery is designed to restrict what you eat, and what you absorb in nutrients from the food you consume. A small pouch is created by dividing the top of your stomach—usually a fraction of your stomach’s capacity. The small intestine also has a small section from the top surgically re-routed so that your intestine has less tract.

The smaller capacity of your stomach is the main factor that helps you lose weight. For most people who struggle with obesity, there’s a complex relationship with food that’s made most diet plans feel impossible. By reducing the size of your stomach (roughly to the size of a peach), self-control suddenly comes in second to what you can literally fit into your tummy.

The shorter digestive tract also means that your small intestine has less surface to absorb calories. However, you’ll also absorb a smaller portion of the nutrients that you need.

What are the major risks of gastric bypass surgery?

The biggest risks from having a gastric bypass are the same risks you run into with any surgery. If you have problems with blood clotting, excessive bleeding could be the biggest risk from having surgery. And, for many people, the unknown reaction to anesthesia is a problem that’s almost impossible to foresee…until it’s too late. Infection is also a possibility with any surgery.

There are specific dangers for this type of surgery, too. All surgeries that have to do with your digestive system can lead to nutritional imbalances while your body adjusts to the new “norm” post-surgery. Sometimes, a body does a lousy job, and you end up with gallstones or malnourishment.

Other issues like gastrointestinal leaks, hernias and stomach perforation are also risks when having extensive surgical work done in your stomach cavity.

The biggest risk: disappointment

Gastric bypass has become professionally recognized as the best surgical solution for obesity. And according to a study in the U.K., for most cases of obesity it is exponentially more effective than diet or exercise.

But wait, how could that be? Isn’t that the opposite of what they tell us? Doesn’t surgical intervention carry risks well beyond diet and exercise? Yes, it might sound like the opposite of what you’re used to hearing. But when it comes to obesity, there are major psychological factors at play, usually including an addiction to food. Diet and exercise cower under the weight of addiction.

Because of the huge emotional investment in how you gained the weight and how desperately you want to lose it, the biggest risk to gastric bypass surgery is that it might now work. And then where are you left? If you spent the money and faced the risks, only to see the surgery fail, the disappointment might be one of the biggest let-downs you ever have.

So, how do you give yourself the best chance at a successful gastric bypass surgery? You have to be prepared to do the work afterword. It’s the only answer. You have to be prepared for smaller meals, and for the higher intake of macronutrients without all the fat and sugar you crave. You have to be prepared for negative consequences beyond lack of weight-loss, too, if you continue eating the way you were. Binging or eating too many fats or sugars after the surgery leads to vomiting, diarrhea and other miserable side-effects.

But what’s the risk of NOT doing it?

After successful gastric bypass surgeries, the average weight-loss is between 60 and 80% of the excess weight the patient had to lose. Okay…you know there are risks to having the surgery done. But what’s the risk of NOT doing it?

By not dropping the weight, you are at risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression and a generally lower quality of life as well as hundreds of other diseases and conditions. You probably already suffer from at least one of them.

If you know you need to fix the problem but still aren’t sure whether it’ll be gastric bypass or something else, you can also consider a gastric sleeve or adjustable gastric band. Or, as the conventional wisdom has told us life-long, a better diet and a whole ton of exercise.