In Western society, losing weight is a popular health goal. From fad diets to invasive surgery, there seems to be no limit to what we are willing to do to shed some excess weight. However, there may be more benefits to these weight loss procedures than meets the eye.
Despite our deep-rooted interest in weight loss, obesity rates have never been higher. From 2017 to 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that over 41% of American adults met the body mass index criteria of obesity.¹ What's more, obesity rates have been steadily on the rise across the country over the past few decades, with the percentage of people with obesity increasing from 30.5% to 41.9% between 1999 and 2020.¹
Unsurprisingly, as obesity rates have risen across the US, so has the interest in weight loss procedures and treatments. According to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS), the number of weight loss surgeries performed in the US has never been higher, with more than 250,000 bariatric surgery operations occurring in 2018 alone.²
Most commonly offered to patients experiencing serious health complications due to their weight, recent research shows that going under the knife for weight loss surgery may have more health benefits than we initially realized.
From controlling diabetes to reducing high blood pressure, it is common for people to experience improved overall health after losing weight due to surgery — but as it turns out, the health benefits may carry on to reduce the risk of developing cancer later in life as well!
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To better understand the obesity epidemic in the US, we first need to explore the body mass index (BMI) chart used in diagnosing obesity. Created in the early 19th century, the BMI chart uses a simple calculation of a person’s weight and height to determine their risk of being overweight or obese. Despite multiple health experts voicing concern over the numerous inaccuracies of this measurement, it is still commonly used across the medical field as a quick reference for a person’s weight and overall health.
BMI is reported as a number value based on a height and weight chart. In most cases, the higher a person’s BMI, the more likely they are to be overweight or obese.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), in the US, nearly one in three adults meet the BMI criteria for being overweight, and more than two in every five adults are obese. Moreover, these numbers are projected to increase over the coming decades.³
Unfortunately, obesity rates are not the only major health concern over recent years. As of 2017, the National Cancer Institute estimates that upwards of 39.5% of American adults will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime — a disease that proves to be fatal for over 600,000 Americans every year.⁴
Because cancer treatment costs the US healthcare system billions of dollars annually, it is no surprise that research has been conducted to determine some of the most common risk factors for developing the disease. Recent research has indicated that obesity and excess weight may be contributing factors to the ever-increasing number of new cancer diagnoses.
Research has shown that obesity is linked to an increased risk of developing at least 13 of the most common types of cancer.
Altogether, these 13 types make up approximately 40% of all new cancer diagnoses in the US, affecting upwards of 630,000 Americans yearly.⁵
Additionally, as obesity rates continue to rise across the country, so does the diagnosis rate of these types of cancer — with a reported 7% increase in prevalence from 2005 to 2014.⁵
So, it is clear that living with obesity and excess weight can increase your risk of developing various health complications — but what happens when you successfully lose weight after undergoing bariatric surgery? As it turns out, the health benefits go far behind weight loss and may even reduce your cancer risk.
In a 2022 study of over 30,000 participants, it was found that weight loss related to bariatric surgery could reduce the risk of developing cancer.6 Measuring a group of American adults with a BMI of 35 or greater, it was found the people who underwent bariatric surgery and successfully lost weight were 32% less likely to develop obesity-related cancer compared to those who did not have surgery.⁶
Additionally, people who had bariatric surgery were 48% less likely to experience a cancer-related death. This indicates that weight loss due to these procedures offer many long-term health benefits.⁶
Weight loss surgery can positively impact a person’s overall health — but why are these procedures so successful at keeping the weight off?
As one of the more drastic and invasive options for treating obesity, bariatric surgery has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to manage obesity in the long term. Depending on the health of the patient undergoing surgery and on the type of procedure, rapid weight loss can begin almost immediately — often lasting for 18–24 months after the operation.⁷
During this time, it is common for patients to lose 30%–50% of their excess weight, as long as they can follow post-operative instructions regarding diet and lifestyle changes.⁷ But, it is important to note that these health benefits are often not short-lived.
Because bariatric surgery changes the size and function of the gastrointestinal system, it is common for people who undergo weight loss surgery to successfully maintain their weight loss when compared to those who do not have the procedure.
One recent study found that patients who underwent weight loss surgery had lost 21% more of their baseline weight 10 years after surgery compared to those who lost weight in other ways.⁸
There are multiple ways to approach bariatric surgery. The safest procedure will be chosen depending on the patient’s medical history, anatomy, and the provider's expertise.
Examples of the most commonly performed bariatric surgeries include:
As one of the more commonly performed procedures, gastric bypass surgery is designed to encourage weight loss by reducing the size of a person’s stomach.⁹ By bypassing the stomach and changing the way the small intestine absorbs nutrients, patients who undergo this procedure can experience significant weight loss quite quickly after surgery.⁹
Gastric bypass surgery is most commonly done laparoscopically (through small keyhole incisions in the abdomen), but a larger incision may be needed depending on a person’s anatomy.
Also called a lap band procedure, this type of surgery helps slow the entry of food into the stomach.¹⁰ During the surgery, a small saltwater ring is placed around the top portion of the stomach. Using an external port, the ring can be wider or more narrow using saltwater injections.
After surgery, due to the slowing of food entering the stomach, it is common for patients to feel full after eating a smaller amount — which in turn helps encourage sustained weight loss.
Depending on the patient’s individual health needs, the provider may recommend a sleeve gastrectomy for weight loss. During this procedure, the surgeon removes a significant portion of the patient’s stomach (up to 80% of the stomach pouch), which will cause the person to feel full after eating a small amount of food.¹¹
After surgery, it is common for patients to also experience a decreased appetite due to a decrease in ghrelin (the hormone responsible for hunger) which is created from stomach tissue.¹¹
Just because bariatric surgery can offer many health benefits doesn't mean these procedures are without complications and consequences.
As a more invasive option for losing weight, it can take months for patients to fully recover — something that can be very difficult for those looking to jump into a more active lifestyle immediately.
In most cases, patients are required to follow a strict liquid-only diet for weeks after their surgery to reduce the chances of complications. Often required until the surgical site has been given adequate time to heal, eating only a liquid diet for at least two weeks can be difficult for many people.
Before you even consider the possible surgical complications of weight loss surgery, you need to get approved — and this isn't easy. Bariatric surgery is a form of major surgery, so every potential candidate must meet the required qualifications to be approved. According to the ASMBS, the current qualifications for bariatric surgery include:¹²
Having a BMI of 40 or higher, or being more than 100lb overweight
Being diagnosed with at least one obesity-related health condition, including type II diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver, high blood pressure, heart disease, and sleep apnea
An inability to achieve healthy weight loss over a period of time
People should also be assessed psychologically to understand the huge impact this surgery and the post-operative period can have.
With many other non-invasive options for weight loss available across the country, not meeting the requirements for bariatric surgery is not the end of the line for those looking to lose weight. You may even prefer the slower, more lifestyle-oriented approach to weight loss instead.
If reading this article has made you interested in finding a way to lose weight, it is important to know that there is no miracle cure.
Despite what the fad diet industry will have you believe, weight loss is more complicated than taking pills, drinking skinny tea, or getting surgery. Like with most things, weight loss success comes from building healthier lifestyle habits and staying committed to your goals, with or without an invasive procedure.
One of the key takeaways from this article is the message that sustainable long-term weight loss is what reduces a person’s risk of cancer and other health complications, not the bariatric surgery procedure.
If you're looking for some small but significant changes that you can make to your current lifestyle to lose weight and improve your overall health, here are some of our top tips:
Exercise is a great way to strengthen your body, improve your cardiovascular health, and burn some extra calories throughout the day.
While it can be tempting to assume that intense workouts are the only way to lose weight, taking strides to incorporate low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, dancing, and gardening into your daily routine can have more of a positive impact than you might think!
This is often overlooked, but having adequate sleep health is essential for weight loss. When your body can rest, relax, and recalibrate, getting enough sleep every night helps to rebalance hormones and reduce stress — two things that can help with long-term weight loss.
What we eat impacts our weight. Whenever possible, trying to eat a balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables, and protein can help to encourage weight loss. Avoiding processed foods and added sugars can also help speed up weight loss.
While it may not seem like an important component of weight loss, stress management can drastically impact a person’s weight loss journey. Responsible for causing us to stress-eat and indulge in unhealthy coping mechanisms, stress is a huge barrier to long-term weight loss.
People looking to lose weight should reduce their daily stress levels in any way they can. Common methods include reducing workload and practicing mindfulness and meditation.
There is no need to go through weight loss on your own. Weight gain is often associated with other dysfunctional areas of our lives, and working with health professionals can be incredibly helpful.
Work with your primary healthcare provider to find the best possible treatment plan to meet your goals.
Studies have shown that weight loss surgery can reduce your chances of getting cancer. However, it is not so much the surgery itself as the sustained weight loss that has this positive effect.
Bariatric surgery is invasive and has a long recovery time. If you aren't eligible for it or prefer to lose weight more gently, making some lifestyle changes will put you on the road to a healthier you.
Adult obesity facts | Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Long-term study of bariatric surgery for obesity: LABS | NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Overweight and obesity statistics | National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Cancer statistics | National Cancer Institute
Cancers associated with overweight and obesity make up 40% of cancers diagnosed in the United States | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
How effective is bariatric surgery? | University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics
Gastric bypass surgery | Healthdirect
Lap band surgery | Healthdirect
Gastric sleeve surgery | Healthdirect
Who is a candidate for bariatric surgery? | American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS)