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Weight Loss Surgery vs. Body Contouring: What is the Difference?

women stretching before a run

If you want to lose weight, and diet and exercise are not working well enough on their own, perhaps you have started researching weight loss surgery, or even body contouring procedures such as liposuction or a tummy tuck, to help you get results.

If you are having trouble understanding the difference between weight loss surgery and body contouring, you are not alone. The medical terminology surrounding these procedure categories can be hazy, leading many patients to incorrectly believe that body contouring and weight loss surgery are one in the same.

Body contouring surgery is not a weight loss method. It is an option to help patients improve their shape after they achieve a healthy weight.

While both weight loss (bariatric) surgery and body contouring can both ultimately result in an improved appearance and enhanced self-confidence, they are very different types of procedures with very different goals. This post will help you understand these important differences so you can choose the correct path and choose the right surgeon for your needs.

Bariatric surgery vs. body contouring: key differences

  • Bariatric surgery activates weight loss; body contouring does not. Weight loss procedures, such as lap band and gastric sleeve or bypass surgery, restrict a patient’s caloric intake by physically shrinking the size of the stomach. This can help a significantly overweight individual lose pounds safely if they are having a hard time controlling what they eat. In contrast, body contouring surgery has no effect on appetite, digestion, or metabolism and will not result in weight loss beyond the weight of tissues removed during the procedure.
  • Weight loss surgery is medical; body contouring surgery is primarily cosmetic. Weight loss surgery is not intended to directly improve your appearance; its goal is to simply limit your appetite, helping you lose weight. The primary goal of body contouring is to achieve a more aesthetically pleasing appearance, not to correct or improve physical health.
  • Weight loss surgery cannot remove excess skin or improve body proportions, but body contouring does. Many patients end up with excess, loose skin following bariatric weight loss surgery due to rapid weight loss. Therefore, patients often choose to undergo body contouring after weight loss surgery to help them remove excess skin and achieve a more aesthetically pleasing shape.

Body contouring is an option to help patients improve their shape after they achieve a healthy weight.

Body contouring procedures improve a patient’s shape, but not their size or weight. Body contouring is a common next-step for patients who have already lost a significant amount of weight, either through bariatric surgery or diet and exercise, as well as those who wish to address effects of pregnancy or aging. Common body contouring procedures include:

  • Tummy tuck surgery, to tighten stretched out abdominal muscles and remove excess skin from the belly
  • Liposuction, to reduce isolated fat pockets and to sculpt more aesthetically pleasing proportions on various parts of the body
  • Body lifting (i.e., arm lift, thigh lift, lower body lift) to remove excess, hanging skin

These options are meant to improve areas that are not responding well to diet and exercise. Patients who are at or near their ideal weight will experience the best results. Typically, this means a patient is within 5 to 10 pounds of their goal weight. Additionally, since body contouring procedures are aesthetic (as opposed to medically necessary), they are considered elective. Experienced plastic surgeons will require patients to be healthy and at a stable weight for several months before undergoing surgery to ensure safety, to optimize healing, and to maintain results over time.

But liposuction gets rid of fat—so will liposuction help me lose weight?

Good question, but the answer is no! Because liposuction removes fat cells, it is often mistakenly thought of as a way to lose weight without having to diet and exercise. However, even a relatively large amount of liposuction will not result in significant weight loss—in fact, the average patient loses less than 3 pounds (1 to 2 pounds is more typical) after liposuction. The same logic applies for non-surgical liposuction alternatives such as CoolSculpting; no cosmetic fat reduction method is recommended for general weight loss.

Additionally, simply removing fat cells has little to no impact on future weight fluctuations. If you overeat (or under-exercise) after liposuction, your remaining fat cells can still grow larger and you can still gain weight; it will just show up in a somewhat different pattern. You can read more about this subject here.

While liposuction may be incorporated into a body contouring surgery plan, it is only intended for treating specific, relatively small fat pockets.

Who performs weight loss surgery? Who performs body contouring?

Weight loss surgery should be performed by a board certified general surgeon who specializes in bariatric surgery (there is currently no separate certifying board for bariatric surgery that is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties).

Body contouring surgery should only be performed by a plastic surgeon who is board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and has ample experience in aesthetic body contouring procedures. “Cosmetic surgeons” do not undergo the same extensive plastic surgery training that board certified plastic surgeons do. Similarly, unless a plastic surgeon has been specially trained to do so, they generally do not perform weight loss surgery.

Learn more about body contouring during a personal consultation

I hope I have cleared up some confusion about weight loss vs. body contouring for you. If you are in Fort Worth and interested in improving your appearance with body contouring surgery, I invite you to contact my office to schedule a personal consultation with me. During our time together, we can discuss your goals and design a treatment plan to help you achieve them.

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