Like JFP’s Editor-in-Chief, Dr. John Hickner, I have been skeptical about bariatric surgery (A [former] skeptic’s view of bariatric surgery. J Fam Pract. 2018;67:600), but I will recommend it for a select few patients who are unable or unwilling to undergo significant lifestyle changes. My experience in clinic has done nothing to change this skeptical view. I have many patients who opted for bariatric surgery, but did not change their lifestyle habits. These patients often regain weight and accumulate chronic diseases 2 to 7 years postop. In the end, if a patient does not change their lifestyle, bariatric surgery can push the consequences of obesity out 5 to 10 years, but at a very significant risk.
The most significant problem I see is that many primary care providers do not feel qualified to impart meaningful lifestyle recommendations to patients, which often leads to guidance that is inadequate and, in some cases, inaccurate. Furthermore, assuming patients have received evidence-based instructions, they often lack the support and means to apply these lifestyle changes. I would be very hesitant to recommend bariatric surgery before addressing all of these concerns.
An interesting study done by Lingvay et al1 showed that postsurgical starvation (600 kcal/d) without the bariatric surgery had better short-term outcomes than surgery with calorie restriction, which suggests that a period of starvation is better than surgery.
In general, the results of evidence-based lifestyle changes far surpass any medical or surgical treatment for obesity and its associated chronic diseases. The evidence for this is overwhelming. (See books by Drs. Joel Fuhrman, Michael Greger, Neal Barnard, Dean Ornish, and Garth Davis, as well as the hundreds of peer-reviewed studies cited in these books.) Yet most patients under-going bariatric surgery never receive proper instructions or attempt any meaningful lifestyle changes.
I think it is far more prudent to refer potential surgical candidates to someone who understands good nutrition and lifestyle changes, such as a doctor certified by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (lifestylemedicine.org). Surgery, in my opinion, is a very poor and dangerous second choice.
John Reed, MD