Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in an ongoing Next Avenue series about one Minnesota man’s lifelong struggle with obesity and what he’s learned since deciding to confront it through weight-loss surgery. Find earlier posts here.
A common comment people who have had weight-loss surgery hear is: “So, you took the easy way out.”
Speaking from personal experience, I can say that those who utter (or think) this miss the mark by a mile.
People who turn to weight-loss surgery do not do so on a whim. Doctors and insurance companies frequently require verified previous attempts at weight loss. Counseling sessions are scheduled and dietician meetings held. There’s psychological testing. Blood work. Cardiac clearance. You need to stop smoking.
All of this before you are cleared for the operating room.
Weight-loss surgery is major, involving significant changes to the gastrointestinal system. While it is mostly now completed laparoscopically, some weight-loss surgery patients know before surgery that it will be completed via a major, open incision while others learn that the operation was converted to an open procedure when they wake up in recovery.
After surgery, the possible side effects are endless. Pain. Dehydration. Nausea. Gas. Fatigue. Hair loss. Dumping syndrome (that's when undigested contents of your stomach move too rapidly into your small bowel; symptoms often include cramping, diarrhea and nausea). Sliming (a white, foamy discharge from the mouth). These are considered minor setbacks that patients may suffer.
The Hardest Part
So there is nothing easy about weight-loss surgery. I don’t say this looking for sympathy. I say it because the so-called easy way is hard.
In my case, I was on a liquid diet for 14 days prior to my surgery. Five protein shakes at 170 calories each — 850 calories per day. That’s about one-fourth of what I typically consumed.
The hardest part for me? No carbonated beverages. None. I was a Diet Coke junkie. I loved Diet Coke. Craved it. I’d have at least eight cans a day.
I was also a connoisseur. I knew that McDonald’s Diet Coke was the best. Better than cans. Better than bottles. Better than any other fountain Diet Coke at any other store or restaurant. And I knew why, too. Because McDonald’s invests more in water filtration, so it has better water, and because it chills both the water line and the syrup line, making its blend of Diet Coke have more bite than any other I found.
Gone. My beloved Diet Coke was gone. I began weaning myself in June and had my last one around my birthday at the end of July.
And no beer either. I don’t drink much, but beer was my favorite. It, too, is carbonated. It, too, was gone.
I’ve not had any caffeine since my last Diet Coke. I can’t say that my body misses it, but my brain sure does. (And yes, it is ironic that drinking zero calorie pop can make you fat.)
A New Way Of Eating
The gastric sleeve reduced the size of my stomach by about 75 percent. It’s no surprise that I needed to learn a new way of eating.
Immediately after surgery, for Phase 1, what I had to eat made the pre-operation protein-shake diet look like a Las Vegas buffet. Clear liquids. Oh sure, you can have protein, as long as it is in a clear liquid, which means it tastes awful. This lasted seven days post-op.
Phase 2 was the return of the protein shakes for two more weeks.
Phase 3 was pureed foods, basically anything rich in protein that you could put in a blender or food processor before eating. Blended cottage cheese. Blended eggs.
Phase 4 was soft foods, high in protein and easily digestible. This lasted two more weeks.
On Oct. 13, 2014, I reached Phase 5: regular foods.
That’s the plan for the rest of my life: eat protein first, followed by vegetables. Avoid carbs. Avoid sugars.
I have averaged 800 to 900 calories per day since reaching Phase 5. I track my food on an app on my phone. I drink at least 64 ounces of water each day. No bread. No dessert. No refined sugars.
The surgery helps me feel full faster. It helps me achieve the dietary goals I was unable to achieve for the past 30 years.
A Tool Vs. a Cure
But weight-loss surgery is not a cure. As surgeons commonly and rightly state, it is a tool, and not a perfect one.
There are legions of stories of people who have figured out how to eat around the surgery. While the sleeve limits my ability to eat large quantities of food at one sitting, I suppose I could graze all day on ice cream and consume enormous quantities of calories without upsetting my new, much smaller stomach.
But I won't do that. Part of my motivation for writing this blog is to achieve a level of self-accountability that might help me succeed.
My New Exercise Regimen
In addition to significant dietary change, exercise is my new normal. My goal is for my cardio workouts to last 180 minutes per week. I try for light strength training three times per week.
Exercise is very important to prevent the loss of muscle mass during rapid weight loss. It also is starting to make me feel better for the first time in many, many years.
My previous attempts at exercise made me sore and tired. The weight loss from the surgery has made exercise more pleasant, though I am still waiting for the endorphin high that people claim to get from it.
I hope my long-term outcome does not include a route toward a new unhealthy eating pattern. I have lost 90 pounds since my surgical consultation in May 2014 — 76 pounds of that since the surgery in August. I am within 30 pounds of my goal after not quite four months.
The window of time to lose weight in a rapid manner lasts six to 12 months, according to the literature and the people who've been so brave and caring to share their stories and advice with me.
Now, all of this writing about dieting and food is making me hungry. I'll drink more water and go for a short walk. It’s a new life after all. It wasn't so easy getting here.
Coming next: Hiring Discrimination Against Those Who've Had Weight Loss Surgery