Bariatric surgery is designed to help obese patients achieve substantial, long-term weight loss that they have been unable to achieve using other methods. The surgery works by restricting the stomach size and (in some cases) limiting the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food by bypassing a portion of the digestive tract. This operation has evolved through more than half a dozen variations since it was first invented in 1954. Early versions of the procedure were risky and often led to unacceptable side effects such as constant diarrhea, dehydration and liver damage. Older techniques that caused too much malabsorption have largely been abandoned; newer techniques such as the gastric balloon are still in the clinical trial stages. Today, there are four main types of weight-loss surgery performed in the United States.

Gastric Bypass (Roux-en-Y)

The Roux-en-Y is a modern version of the gastric bypass surgery developed in 1967. It can be performed through a long, open incision in the abdomen or laparoscopically via several small incisions. The laparoscopic approach is associated with fewer complications (especially with wound healing), less pain and a shorter recovery. However, patients who are very obese or who have previously undergone abdominal surgery may only be candidates for the open version of the procedure. This is determined on a case-by-case basis, and the criteria may vary between surgeons.

This bariatric surgery is performed using general anesthesia. The surgeon uses a line of staples to create a small pouch out of part of the stomach. This new stomach pouch holds less than an ounce of food (it will stretch a little over time). This limits meal sizes and leads to a feeling of fullness that makes it easier to resist overeating. Gastric bypass also leads to changes in the hormonal signals sent out by the gastrointestinal system, reducing feelings of hunger.

The lower part of the intestine is severed and then surgically attached to an opening in the new stomach pouch. Now, food passes directly from the pouch into a lower segment of the small intestine, “bypassing” part of the digestive system. The more length of intestine bypassed, the less food gets absorbed during digestion. This malabsorption of nutrients can lead to more rapid and effective weight loss. However, there is a tradeoff between high levels of weight loss and the side effects of malabsorption. Most Roux-en-Y procedures bypass only a short segment of the small intestine to limit these side effects.

The large, unused portion of the stomach and the bypassed segment of small intestine aren’t removed from the body entirely. Instead, they are reattached lower on the intestine. This portion of the stomach still produces acids. Letting those gastric juices flow into the lower intestine aids the digestion of food. This approach also means the tissue remains viable. This is important in case of complications that would require a reversal of the procedure.

Pros of Roux-en-Y:

  • This is the most common bariatric surgery. Depending on where you live, it’s relatively easy to find a surgeon with lots of experience performing gastric bypass (an important factor for limiting the risk of complications).
  • Weight loss occurs very quickly after the procedure and tends to be long lasting.
  • Diseases such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure that are associated with excess weight may improve rapidly.

Cons of Roux-en-Y:

  • Unpleasant side effects such as “dumping syndrome” are very common. Patients may experience dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and other symptoms after eating high-sugar foods.
  • This procedure has a higher 30-day mortality (death) rate than less-invasive procedures such as gastric banding.
  • Calcium and iron deficiencies are an unavoidable side effect requiring lifelong supplementation.
  • The surgery is difficult to reverse and should be considered permanent.

Sleeve Gastrectomy

This bariatric surgery is referred to as a gastric sleeve or vertical sleeve. The surgeon reduces the size of the stomach by about 75 percent. Basically, it becomes a tube rather than a pouch. This reduction restricts food intake and leads to a greater sense of fullness after eating even small amounts of food. The intestines are not modified in this surgery. This procedure may be recommended when only modera