If you try to eat healthy and exercise regularly but can’t lose excess weight that is causing health problems, you’re not alone. Nearly 1 in 3 adults struggle with weight-related chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
“In addition to medical problems related to obesity, obesity can impact quality of life, from simple things such as not being able to bend over and tie your shoes to getting winded walking from the parking lot into the grocery store,” says UNC Health bariatric surgeon Lindsey Sharp, MD.
For people whose health and daily lives are affected by obesity, bariatric surgery can be life-changing. Not only do they lose weight, but they also gain the ability to live a richer life, whether that means playing outside with their kids or hopping on a plane without worrying about fitting in the seat.
Most importantly, health typically improves—sometimes dramatically—after bariatric surgery.
“People often find their blood pressure drops into a healthy range, and 90 to 95 percent of our patients with early type 2 diabetes have their diabetes go into remission, allowing them to come off all their medications,” Dr. Sharp says.
Read on to learn about three people who say bariatric surgery has helped them live a healthier, more active life.
Getting Her Diabetes—and Resulting Heart Problems—Under Control
By the time she turned 31, Tiara White had two heart attacks within 18 months. Before that, she had been misdiagnosed with type 2 diabetes at age 17, correctly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes a year later and spent more than a decade on an insulin pump to regulate her diabetes.
In people with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas cannot make the hormone insulin, which is needed for the body’s cells to absorb glucose (sugar) for energy. As a result, people with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin via injection or an inserted pump.
Weight gain can cause greater insulin resistance, which leads to the need for more insulin. If your cells become too resistant to insulin, it can result in elevated blood sugar levels.
“I had been on a ton of insulin and developed insulin resistance,” says White, whose A1C reached 14.3 percent. A1C is a blood test that measures a person’s average blood sugar level. Anything 6.5 percent or higher is diabetes.
High blood sugar leads to inflammation, which damages the lining of the heart’s arteries. High blood sugar and inflammation also damage the nerves that control the heart. These changes can lead to diseases in your heart and blood vessels.
“My doctor said the damage done by high blood sugar levels caused my heart attacks,” White says. “I needed to do something to help regulate my sugars and had tried everything to keep my weight off, but I couldn’t.”
So, in March 2022, at age 36, she had bariatric surgery.
While weight-loss surgery has been shown to be a very effective treatment option for patients with type 2 diabetes, it also can help obese patients with type 1 diabetes who have developed insulin resistance.
Since having the surgery, White has lost 113 pounds, and her A1C is down to 4.9 percent, well within the normal range.
“This is the lowest it’s been in my adult life,” White says. “I still wear a continuous glucose monitor just to make sure something doesn’t spike my blood sugar, but I haven’t had to use any insulin in eight months. They have labeled me as diet-controlled type 1 diabetic.”
Nearly a year after weight-loss surgery, White and her husband, whom she’s known since first grade, enjoy staying active with their three children. When she’s not lugging coolers and chairs across baseball and football fields, she enjoys hiking with her family.
“Before my surgery, I had chronic back pain and would have to stop a lot on our hikes. It was heartbreaking because my children were having to wait on me when I knew they wanted to have fun and explore,” White says. “Now I feel better, and I can keep up with my very active children.”
Ready to Ride the Roller Coaster with Her Kids
Jenna Kemp, 35, is a busy mother of 6-year-old triplets.
Despite being active as a cheerleader and riding BMX while working full-time in high school, she remembers being the biggest kid in her school, weighing well over 300 pounds.
“I had been overweight my whole life, and I spent a good portion of my adult life trying fad diets and going to the gym but getting frustrated that instead of losing weight, I would gain it,” Kemp says.
Then, after her triplets were born, she gained an additional 75 pounds.
“I was so sleep-deprived, and I just did not have time to work out or watch what I ate,” Kemp says. “I was eating whatever I could whenever I could. I felt terrible about myself. I was exhausted all the time, and I didn’t feel like I could even get down on the floor to play with my kids when they were learning to crawl. I knew then I had to do something.”
So, in July 2021, Kemp had bariatric surgery.
“I knew if I wanted to be around for my kids and enjoy their childhood that it would be important to take charge of my health,” Kemp says.
She has lost more than 230 pounds since her surgery and no longer has high blood pressure. She has also gained so much more.
“My entire life has changed completely, from not having to wear a seat-belt extender to fitting into booths at restaurants and seats at the movie theater and being able to run and play with my triplets without keeling over from being so out of breath,” Kemp says. “I can ride roller coasters with my kids instead of just watching them ride with my wife and then crying when we got home because I couldn’t be with them.”
Kemp is set to complete her bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration next month and re-enter the workforce after taking time off while her triplets were young.
“Now I am actually living life,” she says. “Before, I was just surviving. If it weren’t for this surgery, I don’t think my kids would have had me as a mom.”
Creating a New Life for His Family and Himself
Spencer Matthews, 38, is an artist at heart. While he has spent a career working in human resources, art is his passion.
“I love to create—from drawing and graphic design to new recipes to feed my family,” Matthews says.
Since having weight-loss surgery in July 2020, he has put his creative cooking skills into overdrive, finding new ways to feed himself, his wife and their two children.
Matthews is down nearly 250 pounds, off blood pressure medicine and no longer prediabetic. He also has discovered a passion for fitness and nutrition.
“I have grown to love working out, and work out regularly,” Matthews says. “My stamina and endurance have increased greatly. When I travel for work, I no longer need a seat-belt extender or worry about who’s going to be next to me and if I am going to encroach on their space. Now I sit anywhere on the plane.”
His entire family has benefited, he says.
“My biggest win is having my family support to hold me accountable, to lift me up and keep me motivated to move forward, because I have two small children and a wife to take care of,” he says. “They were a big part of my decision to do it. But ultimately, I had to get to a point of wanting it for myself, which I did. It’s been a great journey.”
If you think bariatric surgery may be right for you or to learn more, attend a weight-loss surgery seminar at UNC Health Rex.