Study Confirms Weight Loss Surgery Benefit for Diabetics

This new research confirms what was strongly suggested by earlier studies — that bariatric surgery leads to major weight loss, and either directly or indirectly leads to major improvements in the diabetic status of these formerly obese individuals.

I’ve lectured on this topic in my clinical nutrition class and it generally stimulates fruitful class dicsussion. Essentially, we’re looking at a dangerous condition that is almost entirely preventable through diet and exercise. We then see tens of millions of people failing at prevention and then finding themselves in a terrible situation. Once they’ve reached that point, this surgery clearly leads to much improved outcomes. It’s a classic example of radical measures being offered at a late stage for something that should never have reached that point.

It concerns me that we are now seeing, for what to my knowledge is the first time, a serious suggestion that bariatric surgery be provided to diabetics who are even slightly overweight. Again, where is the prevention?

The following quotes are from the National Public Radio coverage of the story, which I’m citing because unlike the MedPage story cited above, this one mentions recommending this surgery for diabetics with a Body Mass Index as low as 26, which is just barely overweight. (Obesity starts at a BMI of 30, and morbid obesity, which is usually when bariatric surgery is provided, starts at a BMI of 40).

This research raises an important question: Should diabetics start getting this operation more often? Paul Zimmet of the International Diabetes Federation, who co-authored an editorial accompanying the studies, thinks they should.

“Diabetes coupled with obesity is probably the largest epidemic in human history. At the moment, bariatric surgery is seen as a last resort. And it should be offered earlier in management,” Zimmet said in a telephone interview.

But others aren’t so sure. The new studies followed only about 200 patients. And while the operations appear to be pretty safe, there can be complications. And the complications can be serious.

“I think we need longer-term follow-up than what was done in these studies to make sure you’re not trading one problem for another,” said Vivian Fonseca of the American Diabetes Association.

Researchers are now testing whether the surgery works on diabetics who aren’t even obese — people with BMIs as low as 26. And doctors and patients are waiting to see if insurance companies will pay for the operations just to treat diabetes.

Earlier this year, I attended (and spoke) at a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services listening session here in Kansas City that focused on what services should be included in an essential benefits package under health reform. For me, the most unexpected part of the event was that of perhaps 30 presenters, four were bariatric surgeons. I was surprised, in part, because I was aware of the research supporting bariatric surgery and had assumed they were in no danger of being excluded.

Now, in light of this new research that was certainly in the pipeline at the time of the hearing, it occurs to me that their presence (which I assume will be duplicated in many other venues), may have been part of a concerted push for a major expansion of their services into the non-obese market.