The recovery process following bariatric surgery is largely dependent on which procedure a patient chooses to undergo. Overall recovery time varies widely from procedure to procedure; for instance, some surgeries are outpatient, so patients can return home on the same day as their surgery, while others require a hospital stay of two to three days. Depending on which surgery they undergo, patients can plan one returning to work anywhere from three days to two weeks after their procedure, and expect a full recovery in roughly four to six weeks. Pain also ranges widely based on the procedure, so some patients may experience nothing more than mild discomfort, while others will require pain medication to appropriately manage their post-surgery pain.
As can be expected, some of the biggest changes for patients following bariatric surgery are those in the realms of diet and exercise. One of the key components of bariatric surgery is its ability to restrict the amount of food patients can consume, which helps induce rapid weight loss. A side effect of restricting food intake is that patients must become much more cognizant of what they are consuming to ensure they get adequate nutrition. Furthermore, as patients lose weight by restricting calories, exercise becomes easier and can be made a central part of their daily routines.
Regardless of the procedure, bariatric patients can expect rapid weight loss following their surgery as a result of consuming and absorbing fewer calories, altering gut hormones and allowing for increased physical activity levels. While the extent of weight lost varies from procedure to procedure, within three months the average patient will have lost 20-30% of their excess weight and up to 70% by the end of the second year. Additionally, they can expect improvement or reversal in a wide array of obesity-related co-morbidities.
Typically, a dietitian or nutritionist will have patients on a detailed diet, specific to the procedure they have chosen to undergo, immediately following surgery. Depending on the procedure, this new, more restrictive diet will be liquids- or soft-food-only and can last anywhere for three days to four weeks following surgery. Slowly, and as tolerated by your new stomach, regular foods will be added back into your diet. Because the amount of food a patient can consume will be so drastically decreased, it is very important that patients focus on eating a healthy, protein-rich diet, and ensure they meet their daily hydration needs. Oftentimes, vitamin and mineral supplementation is added to a patient’s diet to ensure they meet daily recommended levels of vital nutrients.
In addition to watching what they eat, bariatric surgery patients will also need to take a conscious look at /how/ they eat. Patients must be mindful of how they prepare their food, measuring and weighing out raw ingredients, avoiding food preparations that are high in fat and empty calories, and controlling portion size. Furthermore, the physical act of eating will change for patients following bariatric surgery; special care must be taken to eat slowly by cutting food into very small pieces, chewing thoroughly, and being mindful of the signs of satiety so as to prevent overeating. Additionally, it is very important that patients avoid snacking between meals, as this is a surefire way to halt weight loss by consuming too many calories.
Additionally, patients cannot drink before, during, or after meals, as doing so can “wash” small meals right through the stomach, leaving them hungry sooner following meals. This, in turn, makes it very difficult to stick to the prescribed diet and prevent overeating. Drinking during meals can also cause “dumping syndrome,” which occurs when food moves too quickly from the stomach to the small intestines and leads to nausea, diarrhea, bloating, and weakness.
Regular, modest exercise is advisable for everyone, but particularly for patients recovering from bariatric surgery. A patient’s exercise regimen will often begin immediately following surgery with short walks at the hospital. As patients being to lose weight, exercise that was previously very difficult for them becomes much more manageable and can be incorporated into their daily routine. As time progresses and patients continue to lose weight, the type and intensity of exercise can be modified and increased as tolerated. Exercise is very important because, in addition to supplementing weight loss, it has the ability to boost metabolism, improve mental health, lower bad and increase good cholesterol, and help patients live longer.
In addition to modifying their old diet and exercise habits, one of the most important aspects of a patient’s recovery from bariatric surgery is the extent and strength of their support network. It is critical that patients seek out like-minded individuals to help them work through this journey, whether in a dedicated support group or with friends and family. For better or worse, it is not uncommon for patients to see drastic changes in their personal relationships, so it is very important for patients to have a support system in place to work through these life changes.