Five years ago when the incredible shrinking newsman Al Roker fessed up that his 100-pound weight loss was the result of gastric bypass surgery, his admission was clouded with shame. In USA Today he called it "embarrassing — the ultimate admission of failure." It took four years for Star Jones to come clean with the news that was a secret to no one: that weight loss surgery helped her lose 160 pounds. "[I was] scared of what other people would think. … For some strange reason, I thought — and it crippled me — that it would diminish who I was," she told Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America.
Weight loss surgery has largely been seen as a quick fix, a cosmetic cure for those—with money—who are too weak to lose weight the hard way. But that view may change thanks to a study published in the Jan. 23 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Australian researchers pointed to stomach-shrinking surgery as a near miracle cure for diabetes. The small study of 60 obese patients showed that just about three-quarters of those who had surgery had complete remissions of diabetes. Only 13 percent of patients who toughed it out with the usual treatment of diet, exercise and diabetes drugs went into remission. The surgery worked its magic by leading to dramatic weight loss. The surgery group, on average, lost about 20 percent of their body weight or 40 pounds in a 200-pound person. That compared to less than 2 percent (4 pounds for a 200-pounder) for those who stuck with conventional treatment.
The news that weight loss surgery can fight diabetes is anything but new to Randy Jackson. Five years ago—weighing in at a robust 350 pounds—the American Idol judge was shocked and scared when his doctor told him he'd been diagnosed with diabetes. Panicked, he made the difficult decision to jumpstart weight loss with gastric bypass surgery. "I chose gastric bypass, though I knew it would only be a band aid," Jackson said in an interview. "It was the kind of drastic, complete change that I needed."
Thanks to the surgery, he lost about 120 pounds. His diabetes is also under control and he says he's off the medication his doctor prescribed to manage his blood sugar. Because he's seen the light, Jackson has also become a spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Heart of Diabetes campaign (Iknowdiabetes.org). He calls diabetes his "wake up call" to taking better care of his health.
The JAMA study and Jackson's apparent triumph over diabetes through stomach-shrinking surgery is of special interest to African-Americans. Type II diabetes, the kind triggered and exacerbated by being overweight, has become our own national epidemic, a true African-American crisis. Most of us are either overweight or obese, which has lead to 3.2 million cases of diabetes among blacks, 1/3 of whom have no idea they have it.
We are also more likely to be affected by diabetes complications—stroke, heart disease, amputation, kidney failure, blindness and death—which, in theory, should never be associated with what is supposed to be a manageable disease.
But even though weigh loss surgery has come out of the closet and into the medical limelight, there are plenty of caveats. The two most common forms of the procedure, gastric bypass and lap band surgery, generally cost tens of thousands of dollars and are only sometimes covered by insurance. There are a number of risks associated with the surgeries and side effects after. Plus, it's the beginning, not the end of managing diabetes. Even Randy Jackson is quick to point out that the procedure was only a start. He says he's now sworn off the most of the sugary, fatty Southern food he grew up with and he tries to exercise every day. "Gastric bypass helped me tremendously," he said. "But I still had to make plenty of other lifestyle changes."
So what's does it mean for us? Despite both studies and success stories of weight-loss surgery, it's always better to go with old-fashioned diet and exercise first. It's cheaper, less dangerous and you can control what you eat and how you move—rather putting yourself into the hands of a surgeon. Plus, even if you do have the surgery, like Jackson, Star Jones and Al Roker, in order to keep the weight off and stay healthy and fit, there's no way around eating right and exercising as the key to feeling great every day and avoiding the diseases that cut too many African American lives short.
Linda Villarosa is a health columnist for The Root. "Passing for Black" is her first novel. For more go to her Web site.