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Published on May 03, 2019

man in a bar drinking beer with a friend

Alcohol and Bariatric Surgery: Know the Risks

By Andrea Hanson, MS, RDN, LN, Avera Bariatric Dietitian

During the months that follow bariatric surgery, patients not only adjust what they eat, but how much and how often they do so. They also have to reconsider another aspect of their lifestyle that sometimes is overlooked: alcohol consumption.

The basic guidelines are simple:

  • It’s recommended that patients abstain from alcohol for at least two weeks prior to having surgery
  • After surgery, patients have the most success if they wait at least one year before drinking alcohol.

Patients and providers have experience with bariatric surgery offer these insights when it comes to alcohol use:

Avoid Testing Limits

Just because you had no problems with alcohol before bariatric surgery doesn’t mean you’ll be immune to them afterward. Bariatric surgery changes the way alcohol is absorbed and metabolized in the body, so alcohol has a much stronger effect on the body. Blood alcohol levels peak faster, remain at high levels and can take longer to return to normal after drinking.

Do Not Skip Meals

Patients keep solids and liquids in their diets separated after bariatric surgery. That means enjoying a cocktail or a glass of wine during a meal can cause problems such as overeating. The safest time for patients to enjoy alcohol is after a meal or a snack, because the food can help slow alcohol absorption in the stomach. A helpful tip: only drink alcohol after eating.

Always Have a Buddy

It’s always a good idea to have somebody with you when indulging in your favorite cocktail, but for individuals who have undergone bariatric surgery, it is essential.

The rapid weight loss often experienced after surgery paired with the recommended high-protein diet can reduce glycogen, or sugar stores, in your body. Drinking alcohol also can cause a drop in blood sugar levels, so bariatric surgery patients are at greater risk of experiencing this condition. It can be dangerous, so it is very important to have someone with you in case your blood sugar level does dip too low. As always, drinking and driving is never a good idea – always have a designated driver or safe ride arranged.

Beware of Transfer Addictions

Many people can trade one compulsive behavior for another, and for surgery patients, eating can be the initial behavior.

That’s why it’s critical that patients find healthy ways to cope with stress that do not involve foods or beverages. This set of steps and lifestyle changes is something you and your care team should approach well before the surgery.

While making the changes can be a challenge, people succeed at it every day, through hard work and with the support of a good team.

Start Small or Leave It Out

Bariatric patients are encouraged to refrain from alcohol for about one year after surgery. If you choose to indulge in your favorite cocktail after that point, try a small glass of wine or watered-down distilled alcoholic beverage before returning to portions you may have enjoyed pre-surgery.

Many post-surgery individuals decide they do not want to return to drinking, and they focus more on the company and conversations, rather than drinks when going out. It’s worth it for a healthier you and a better quality of life. Many who refrain from alcohol use offer their help to friends as a designated sober driver.

While each patient’s relationship with alcohol – physically and mentally – can vary, your care team can help you plan accordingly for what will be best for you and tailor an approach that fits your life.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – your bariatric team is always willing to answer them.

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