Hopeless obese Vietnamese find surgery only solution

By Chi Le   December 9, 2022 | 02:03 am PT
Minh Vu followed a rigorous diet, went to the gym, and walked dozens of kilometers a day. But he still weighed 120–140 kg and needed cardiac surgery due to obesity.

When the 25-year-old from the northern province of Thai Nguyen returned to Vietnam after three years studying abroad, he started to gain weight. He quickly went from 100 kg to 142 kg.

As a result of his excessive weight, even a five-minute ascent up a flight of stairs left him out of breath and exhausted. He regularly experienced shortness of breath and problems sleeping. He had to order clothes from overseas because local stores don’t carry his size.

He said that companies turned down his job applications because they were concerned about his size and lack of agility.

Vu says he’d tried everything to lose weight, including a strict diet, working out at the gym, walking dozens of kilometers and taking diet supplements.

"I was eating only eat one bowl of rice per meal," he said. "Although the dining table was heaping with delicious food, I didn’t eat more because I was afraid of gaining more weight."

He added that he was eating a lot of green vegetables and chicken breast, drinking smoothies, and only snacking on healthy nuts. But his weight remained the same.

Since he couldn't find a job, he felt "stuck" in life. Then he gave up on dieting and started binge-eating. Now he's gained so much weight that he had to go to the hospital for cardiac surgery.

Vu's mother, Van, had noticed that her son was feeling low in life and tried to help him lose weight.

In 2020, Van talked her son into having gastric bypass surgery at 108 Military Central Hospital in Hanoi to rid him of obesity.

Dr Nguyen Anh Tuan, head of the Department of Gastrointestinal Surgery, said he still remembers the moment Vu and his mother came to see him.

The son was quiet and didn't say much, said the doctor. Dr. Tuan said he talked to Vu for more than an hour, but Vu initially refused treatment. But after consulting with his mother, he agreed to the surgery.

Doctors perform a gastric bypass surgery at 108 Military Central Hospital in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of the hospital

Doctors perform a gastric bypass surgery at 108 Military Central Hospital in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of the hospital

Over the past few years, the Ministry of Health has seen a rapid rise in the number of overweight and obese people in both cities and rural areas.

More children under 5 years old are now overweight and obese than in 2010, with nearly 10% of children in urban areas and more than 5% of children in rural areas currently obese.

Statistics from 2015 show that nearly 16% of Vietnamese adults were overweight or obese, and the number has been rising. More than 4% have diabetes, and more than 30% have a condition called hyperlipidemia.

By 2020, for every 100 children between the ages of five and 19, 19 were either overweight or obese, a sharp increase compared to the figure of 8.5 in 2010, the National Institute of Nutrition reported in April 2021.

The report noted the proportion of overweight and obese children was 26.8 percent in urban areas, 18.3 percent in rural districts and 6.9 percent in mountainous regions.

According to Tuan, some unhappy overweight people have decided to have surgery because they get criticized and made fun of for their appearances.

This group often has a "give up" attitude because they feel pressure from society and have tried and failed many times to lose weight, he said.

"These people keep going through the same cycle," Tuan said. "When they're stressed, they eat a lot. Then they gain more weight and feel even more pressure."

Nhu Ha Anh, a 32-year-old middle school teacher, said she hadn't been able to control her weight since she was in high school.

At her biggest, Ha Anh weighed 93 kg when she was 30 years old. Her body was round, chunky, and heavy. Her stomach, arms, and thighs were all big. She said the fat lines on her face also made her look older.

She often felt tired, sleepy, short of breath, and she had degenerative spondylolisthesis. When she went on business trips, no one wanted to share a room with her because of how loud she snored.

Ha Anh tried to lose weight by fasting, going to a spa, and getting acupressure. But these methods only worked for a short time before she started gaining weight again.

She told the doctor that she even asked the school she worked for to transfer her to the archive department, where she could be alone. She arrived at work early in the morning so no one would see her. And she stayed in the back office after-hours until everyone else left.

Now she says it was better for her to have surgery than to "die in that back office."

Three months after surgery, Anh was able to lose 32 kg.

With her current weight of 65 kg, she now walks into the lecture hall with confidence and goes shopping for stylish clothes.

As for Vu, he's lost 41 kg in the four months since his surgery. He’s continued to eat right and work out to maintain a weight around the 90kg mark.

Now that Vu feels healthier, he helps his parents do housework and he’s even landed a new job. He plays football twice or three times a week to stay in shape and improve his health. He can now work out for an hour without losing his breath.

Tuan says that obesity needs to be treated properly with the help of a specialist.

He pointed out, however, that surgery is only one of many ways to help people eat less. To lose weight quickly, he said, people need to change their lifestyles, eat less, and exercise more.

*Names of some characters have been changed

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