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The One-Drink DUI in Bariatric Surgery Patients

The One-Drink DUI in Bariatric Surgery Patients


According to a recent Stanford University Medical Center study, post-bariatric patients are likely to reach a blood alcohol level (BAC) above the legal limit for driving – putting them at risk for receiving a DUI – after just one drink. The study, coauthored by Dr. John Morton, included an experiment testing 36 subjects who had undergone weight-loss surgery. After drinking 5 ounces of red wine in 15 minutes, over 70 percent of the subjects reached a BAC of over .08 percent, the legal limit in the state of California. If these patients were to get behind the wheel, they would give Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan a run for their money as DUI queens. What causes such quick intoxication, and is there a way for bariatric patients to safely enjoy a drink?

“But officer, I swear I only had one drink…”

Bariatric surgery makes patients sensitive to the effects of alcohol for several reasons:

  • Since the surgery reduces the stomach’s size, alcohol doesn't remain there long enough to be properly metabolized. Instead, it is transferred directly to the small intestine in its undiluted form, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. This causes a quicker, higher level of intoxication than the average person would experience from ingesting the same amount of alcohol.
  • A loss of body mass after surgery reduces a person’s tolerance to alcohol.
  • Since bariatric patients must follow extremely restricted diets, they aren’t able to eat the snacks that would slow their alcohol absorption.

Time Is of the Essence

According to the Stanford study, when people who have had weight-loss surgery consume alcohol, the alcohol stays in their system longer than it would for the average individual. The study found that it took bariatric patients 108 minutes to clear 5 ounces of red wine from their system, versus 72 minutes for people who hadn’t had the surgery. This compounds the problem for weight-loss patients who, before surgery, were able to have one or two drinks, sober up, and safely drive home.

Adapting to New Limitations

Bariatric patients must make numerous psychological and behavioral adjustments after their procedure, which may affect their ability to drink moderately. Patients who, prior to surgery, could have four or five drinks without becoming intoxicated must adjust their alcohol intake after surgery. In addition, many bariatric patients have to overcome a tendency to overindulge, as they could shift their focus from binge eating to binge drinking.

A Solution?

Is there a happy medium for weight-loss surgery patients who want to be able to enjoy a drink with friends? In the words of Dr. Morton, “one glass [of wine] may be too many.” In the end, bariatric patients should stick to non-alcoholic beverages – especially when driving.

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