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More people undergoing weight-loss surgery during pandemic, research shows

Recent research found that patients who have undergone weight-loss surgery are three times less likely to get hospitalized for COVID-19.

AUSTIN, Texas — The pandemic has helped people realize many things about their lives, including the importance of taking care of their mental and physical health. 

More people struggling with obesity are even turning toward weight-loss surgery to kickstart their weight-loss journey, so they can live a healthier lifestyle. 

Bariatric surgery involves making changes to a person's digestive system to help them lose weight and improve their metabolism. That surgery is growing increasingly popular across the U.S., including here in Austin. 

According to the CDC, having obesity increases someone's risk of suffering more severe illness from COVID-19. Dr. Tim Faulkenberry said his procedure room at the Bariatric Center at St. David's Medical Center is staying busy as more people consider the surgery. 

"It is not so much that they want to have an operation to lose weight so they won't get COVID. That is not going to do it," Faulkenberry said. "What this really amounts to is they really do want to have a healthy body to be able to respond to infections and to recover." 

Nearly three-fourths of adults older than 20 years in the U.S. meet the criteria for being overweight or obese. More than 9% of the U.S. adult population are considered morbidly or severely obese.

"[We] always knew it was good for getting better with diabetes and blood pressure and things like that. But when it comes to getting over a deadly virus, it's been on people's minds a lot more," Faulkenberry said.

Amanda Smith is one of Dr. Faulkenberry's patients. She has lost more than 230 pounds since getting the surgery in September 2019, months before the pandemic hit Austin. 

When the pandemic hit, she was initially worried the pandemic would make her relapse and regain the weight. However, she was able to work hard to stay on track post-surgery and said her lifestyle and health have drastically changed since the surgery, giving her more time to spend with her family.

"We play outside almost every day after work – soccer, volleyball. We go on more little trips to zoos and to the lake, things that I wouldn't have probably enjoyed before because I was so obese," Smith said. 

Recent research from the Cleveland Clinic found that patients who have undergone metabolic, or weight-loss, surgery are three times less likely to get hospitalized for COVID-19 compared to people with obesity who have not had the procedure.

WATCH: More Austinites undergoing weight-loss surgery during pandemic

Weight-loss surgery is a highly effective approach to treating obesity, but it is not a direct fix to prevent someone from getting COVID-19. Faulkenberry said it takes months to prepare for the surgery, mainly as patients work with their insurance agencies and complete pre-operation work.

However, he said getting healthy now is a great way to prevent illnesses in the future. 

Surgeons follow established guidelines for who is allowed to undergo bariatric surgery. It is not just for anyone looking to shed some weight. While each case differs, someone would likely have to have a body mass index, or BMI, of approximately 35 or greater, among other factors.

"It makes good sense that they certainly should have made an effort to lose weight by non-surgical means," Faulkenberry said.

In Smith's case, she gained weight with each child she had. After having three children over the span of 10 years, eating right and exercising was still getting her no results.  

"The only regret I ever have is never doing it sooner because people don't agree with these types of surgeries or they talk down to people and tell them it's the easy way out," Smith said.

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