Kenyans paying dearly to stitch the stomach for quick weight loss

John Nyanje underwent bariatric surgery to have weight loss. [Courtesy]
On Wednesday morning, Caro lay on her hospital bed at the Nairobi Hospital waiting to undergo a procedure she believed would change her life.

She had thought about it, consulted, prayed and was convinced the solution to managing her weight was a gastric bypass surgery.

She watched with a mix of excitement and anxiety as she was wheeled in for the procedure; a kind of bariatric surgery to significantly reduce the size of her stomach.

The stomach reduction would make her eat less and feel satiated for longer.

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The doctors would also close off part of her small intestine so that food bypasses it.

At 45, she weighs 123 kilogrammes. The weight gain happened progressively fast from when she got into her twenties. Before long, simple activities like walking up the stairs caused immense pain.

“My chest would get congested. I would feel like I can’t breathe. Tying my shoe laces became a difficult task,” she says.

Control portions

Friends suggested going to the gym but it did not work. Nutritionists advised her to watch what was on her plate; that all she needed was to control her portions.

She could not seem to grasp the perfect balance needed not to go beyond her caloric requirement.

Then she got into the dark crevasses of social media where people selling slimming pills dangled a promise of instant weight loss.

She sunk thousands of shillings in the pills but all she got was accelerated heart beats and a warning from doctors that the pills would damage her kidneys.

“There is nothing I have not tried. I feel this surgery is what will make me finally lose weight,” she says, adding that before she opted for going under the knife, she had started experiencing swollen legs and extreme pain on her hip joints.

Bariatric surgical procedures are becoming popular among Kenyans, with some opting to go out of the country for the procedure.

They work by either restricting the amount of food the stomach can hold, causing malabsorption of nutrients, or by a combination of both gastric restriction and malabsorption. Doctors recommend it to patients with morbid obesity who are experiencing weight related complications, but there are some people who choose it for aesthetics.

Dr Vladimir Shchukin, bariatric surgeon at the Nairobi Hospital says with the increasing number of people being diagnosed with obesity, more people are embracing surgery as one of the options to lose and maintain weight.

“Before any metabolic surgery is done, the BMI and cause of obesity is established. Obesity is complex and it starts from the brain,” he says, adding that most obese patients always need psycho-social support on how to relate with food.

Statistics from the Nairobi Hospital indicate that they get up to 40 inquiries per day on how to access weight loss surgeries.

John Nyanje, 24, was 132 kilogrammes before he decided to go for a gastric sleeve surgery last year. The procedure surgically removed the side part of his stomach and only left a small part for food. It also removed ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger.  

“I was leading a sedentary life, always in the car. Within one year, my weight shot from 110 to 130,” he says.

Then came the high blood pressure associated with weight. He tried diets, medications and gym but nothing could keep him lean.

Surgery saved his life

With Sh1.5 million, he decided to have the surgery and says he has never looked back. He now weighs 71 kilos and believes the surgery saved his life.

Dr Lyud-mila Shchkina, psychotherapist at the surgical and weight loss clinic at Nairobi Bariatric Centre says they have done more than 1,000 bariatric surgeries over the last five years.

Her revelation dismisses the notion that the surgery is a reserve for celebrities who want to maintain a lean frame.

“A procedure used on a patient is determined by several factors such as BMI and stage of the obesity,” she says.

She noted that Nairobi and Nyeri top as counties from where patients are likely to seek weight loss surgeries.

Data from Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014 indicates that counties where people are likely to suffer from obesity are Kirinyaga, Nairobi, Murang’a, Nyeri and Kiambu.

A study by German University of Göttingen and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) explores modernising of retail sector in Kenya and obesity.

The Global Nutrition Report on Non-Communicable Diseases indicated that 27 per cent of Kenyans are either overweight or obese, with the percentage being significantly higher in women than men.

Weight loss and the options available is a multi-billion shilling business explored by the fashion industry that sells gym attire, diet books and exercise regimen. The latest entry – surgeries – is fast gaining fame, with psychologists saying social media is putting pressure on people, especially young people, on losing weight.

Irene Neto, a counselor says she talks to young people who have gone through extremes to lose weight.

Rising demand

“The most common regimen I see is people taking cayenne pepper on empty stomachs to lose weight.

Some are developing eating disorders such as anorexia while struggling to lose weight,” she says.

Global Weight Loss and Weight Management Market Research Report projects that by 2023, the value of weight loss business will hit Sh28 trillion. 

Factors such as growing number of bariatric surgeries and rising incidence of lifestyle diseases are fueling the market growth.

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