Years After Weight Loss Surgery, Patients Seek Treatment For Eating Disorders

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Morbidly obese individuals who had weight loss surgery are seeking treatment for eating disorders years after their procedure, prompting concerns among some experts about the assessment process used to identify surgical candidates.

“They are terrified of gaining the weight back,” said Dr. Sara Niego, medical director of the Eating Disorders Program at Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living, who has treated patients with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder years after weight loss surgery.

The lack of a national “gold standard” to psychologically assess prospective patients has led Connecticut mental health professionals to call for standardized criteria to identify those who are at risk before and after surgery. They worry some patients with mental health problems may slip through the cracks because each hospital and insurance company has different psychological screening requirements.

Girl on scale“Unfortunately, there is no consensus in the field regarding what constitutes a psychological evaluation or what would prohibit an individual from obtaining surgery from a psychological standpoint,” said Kimberly Daniels, a clinical psychologist with the Center for Weight Loss Surgery at Middlesex Hospital. “There is not, but should be, a standard of care for these evaluations to minimize the psychological risks to clients.”

Life-Changing Surgery

Twenty-five percent of Connecticut adults are obese, up from 18.9 percent a decade ago, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A combination of genetic, environmental and behavioral factors impacts obesity and morbid obesity. Morbidly obese individuals are 100 pounds over their ideal weight and have a 50 percent to 100 percent increased risk of premature death, studies show.

Many Connecticut hospitals offer, or are affiliated with a network that offers, weight loss surgery (also known as bariatric or metabolic surgery). While the types of bariatric surgery vary, the procedures all involve reducing the size of the stomach. Studies show that bariatric surgery can effectively treat morbid obesity and improve or resolve obesity-related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea and certain cancers.

Typically, patients lose the most weight one to two years after surgery, according to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.  On average, patients maintain 50 percent of their excess weight loss five years after surgery.

But for some patients, new or old patterns of disordered eating can surface years after surgery, leading to clinically diagnosed eating disorders. Disordered eating patterns are harmful behaviors – restricting food, binging and purging – that can develop into an eating disorder. Eating disorders are serious psychiatric conditions. Anorexia, for example, has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, reports the National Institute of Mental Health.

“The unhealthy behavior goes away for a while because of the substantial weight loss during the first two years – that’s the honeymoon phase,” said Niego. “Then the weight loss plateaus and some people begin to regain. That’s when the eating disorder or disordered eating resurfaces.”

Experts agree the most common eating disorder associated with obese individuals is “binge eating disorder,” which received its own diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders last year. People with binge eating disorder eat extremely large amounts of food and often report feeling out of control during the binging.

But views on the prevalence of eating disorders following weight loss surgery differ between bariatric surgeons and eating disorder specialists. In Connecticut, eating disorder experts said people who had weight loss surgery represent a new segment of patients seeking treatment at their facilities. Bariatric surgeons say cases of clinically diagnosed eating disorders after surgery are uncommon.

A lack of conclusive research on eating disorders in post-surgery patients clouds the debate.

Niego and colleagues conducted a review of research in 2007 that found an “association between pre-surgical binge eating and post-surgical binge eating.” In one study, 37 percent of people who binge ate before surgery continued feeling out of control when eating up to 15 years after surgery. Another study found 24 percent of patients who reported binge eating before surgery continued after the procedure.

Niego isn’t surprised that some post-bariatric surgery patients seek help for eating disorders.

“You cannot cure a mental disorder through surgery,” she said.

Identifying At-Risk Patients

Although individuals undergo a psychological evaluation before surgery, identifying those at risk poses challenges because people aren’t always up-front about their eating habits, said Rebekah Bardwell Doweyko, program director of Walden Behavioral Care in South Windsor, which treats people with eating disorders.

“How honest do you think people will be on a psychiatric evaluation that determines if they’re eligible for a surgery they perceive is going to save their life?” she said.

Dr. Rishi Ramlogan

Griffin Hospital Photo

Dr. Rishi Ramlogan

Dr. Rishi Ramlogan, medical director of the Bariatric Surgery Program at Griffin Hospital, estimated that 95 percent of people who regain weight after surgery do so because of behavioral reasons.

“Patients need to understand that bariatric surgery is not a quick fix or magic pill,” he said.

“Oftentimes, surgery is the easiest part of the whole process. The real challenge is making the necessary lifestyle changes.”

Post-Surgery Support

Follow-up care for patients includes support groups, education forums, checkups with the surgeon, nutritional counseling and behavioral health consultations and treatment.

“We assume all weight loss surgery patients will struggle to some degree with behavior changes because if it were easy, fewer would require surgery,” said Jennifer Ferrand, a clinical psychologist who works with bariatric patients at the Institute of Living, adding that early intervention “could prevent the development of a full-fledged eating disorder.”



14 thoughts on “Years After Weight Loss Surgery, Patients Seek Treatment For Eating Disorders

  1. I had surgery in 1999. My weight was 285. I lost 135 pounds. Over the next 7 years I gained back 60 pounds. In 2008 I went on the Atkins plan and lost 60 pounds. Over the time after that loss and until Nov. 1015 I put back on 28 pounds. Since Nov. i have been on Atkins and have lost 30 pounds. I am at my lowest weight since high school. I weight 146 and hope to go to 140. I am realizing that i have to be abstinate from high carb and processed food every single day in order to keep this weight. I did have an eating disorder as I was bullemic for 40 years. For the past 16 I have not been. I believe that food can be an addiction just like alcohol or drugs.

  2. If the easiest part is surgery, then why are the medical professionals preparing a possible candidate for surgery ahead of time? I had surgery 8 years ago and had both anorexia and bulimia in my youth. After a lot of therapy I wasn’t anymore. I gained about 50 lbs back but have since lost it and have maintained my loss by utilizing the pouch I was given. I am not sure how the medical professionals are working it now, but when I had surgery, the psychiatric screen was about 10 questions long. Of course every single obese person that has weight lost surgery has an eating disorder, otherwise they would be a healthy weight. Of course the patients need counseling. Come up with a way to treat these problems and you can make a billion dollars. A lot of people are suffering.

  3. Wow. Your story is almost exactly like mine, the weight, the circumstances and everything. I am 55 and searching for answers (diet, support etc.)to end this misery. You have inspired me to do the Atkins diet, thank you.

  4. I am desperately looking for help. I have gained most of my weight back and am in an awful cycle of binging. I keep trying doctor put me on straterra to help the carb craving causes me too much anxiety. Does anyone know where I can find support?
    I have never asked for help and am desperate to be healthy and live a life that is not so miserable

  5. I had gastric bypass on 3/2007 highest weight 310 lowest 178 10 yrs later gain 50 pds and became anorexic i can go weeks without eating i see food and its nasty to me. I try to eat but as soon as im chewing its like my throat closes up on me n i cant swallow it. Have to spit out. Anyone with this problem?

  6. Hi Angie,
    I had the sleeve surgery in April 2017. I know I’m very new as far as healing is concerned but I have the same reaction to food as you are having. I started at 223 and am 113 now. I am a psychiatric nurse and have seen many eating disorder cases in my 37 year career. I went to the surgeon and he said “Sorry for doing my job too well.” So no support there. But the one telling thing he said was “I’m a plumber, I can’t fix what’s up here,” pointing to his head. So it seems like this problem may be more widespread than they would like to admit.
    I am scared to death that I am going to regain tons of weight as I plateau. I am going back to my regular doc today to see what she suggests but am sure that therapy will be the next course of treatment. I knew this was a possibility in my future. Many of us are chemically addicted to food. Its unfortunate that there are not enough medical and psychiatric professionals that will admit the existance of a chemical addiction to certain types of food. The treatment will be complex and different than that of a “normal” food addict. So many of us are suffering. I hope you can find the help you need to find a healthy balance in your life.

  7. I am a Psychotherapist who had gastric bypass October 2018. I am far more interested in people’s stories of restricted eating as teens, who’s bodies later reacted through trauma, meds hormones, unresolved grief etc, by becoming obese.

    When the weight came off me the pain was severe. It woke me up at night. I had memories and yet much of my unresolved grief healed spontaneously.

    This is a frontier- a new landscape of mind body medicine- which is largely unexplored for many reasons. I think the biggest one is that trauma and other unresolved experiences are stored as energy -as matter or fat- on our body. We called it embodied. In some very sensitive people, with really smart guts, I think it gets embodied as adipose cells.

    The research is supporting the theory that excess calories are NOT required for weight gain and fat increase. Ha!

    We all have more to our story than meets the eye and assumptions of others. We have been too stigmatized to think we would be heard or believed. Until now.

    Keep on strong hearts. The truth DOES set us free.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Dr JoAnne MacTaggart

  8. A 44-year-old woman died of malnutrition 10 years after undergoing bariatric surgery for weight loss, according to a new report from a local coroner. Eating disorders and other life-threatening complications of gastric bypass surgery are rare. Most patients do well with extensive preparation and follow-up, including from dietitians and psychologists.

  9. I was just recently diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and I’m so flipping miserable I want to go back to still losing all the time I miss that high. Sleeved 10/23/18

  10. I had gastric by pass surgery 13 years ago I’m bulimic now almost everytime I eat It feels like what I eat is stuck, I become sick to my stomach in pain so they only way I can get any relieve is to make myself throw up I don’t do it because I’m afraid of gaining my weight back I make myself throw up because it’s the only way I can get any relieve and not feel sick or weak I have tried everything I watch what I eat, I eat slow, chew my food up but nothing helps I end having to make myself throw up it’s the only way I can help my sickness after eating I hate it I go without eating much of anything because of this I want to just be normal again I need advise on what to do I’m so tired

  11. My mom is going through the same exact issues as you are, she was recently diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. Her stomach ulcer is now healed but her opening to her stomach is very small restricting food from passing. Waiting to hear from dr tomorrow morning as surgery is a must to stretch the opening to her stomach.
    She had surgery done in 2014.

    I hope you find the help you need to get better.