Is BJS safe for celiac?

Bariatric surgery is becoming an increasingly popular option for sustainable weight loss in individuals struggling with obesity. However, for those living with celiac disease, the safety and efficacy of these procedures must be carefully considered. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by the ingestion of gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, it causes damage to the small intestine, leading to a variety of gastrointestinal and malabsorption symptoms. Strict adherence to a gluten-free diet is currently the only treatment for celiac disease. This article will explore the most common bariatric surgery procedures, including gastric bypass, sleeve gastrectomy, and duodenal switch, and evaluate the evidence regarding the safety of these surgeries for patients with celiac disease. Factors such as changes to anatomy and nutrient absorption will be analyzed, along with considerations for maintaining a gluten-free diet post-surgery. The goal is to provide celiac patients and their healthcare providers with a comprehensive overview of the unique risks and benefits of bariatric surgery in this population.

Overview of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is estimated to affect around 1% of the population worldwide. It can develop at any age, with typical onset between infancy and 40 years old. The disease is caused by an abnormal immune reaction to gluten proteins in genetically susceptible individuals. In celiac disease, the body mounts an attack against its own small intestine in response to gluten exposure, causing inflammation, villous atrophy, and eventual malabsorption. This damage to the small intestine inhibits the absorption of important nutrients like iron, calcium, folate, and fat-soluble vitamins.


Celiac disease has a variety of gastrointestinal and systemic symptoms. Common gastrointestinal complaints include diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation. Malabsorption can lead to unintended weight loss. Systemic symptoms can include fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, neurologic issues like ataxia or neuropathy, and mouth ulcers. In children, failure to thrive, delayed puberty, and dental enamel defects may occur. Most concerning is the increased risk for certain cancers like intestinal lymphoma, as well as osteoporosis and infertility if the disease remains untreated.


Diagnosis of celiac disease begins with blood work looking for elevated levels of antibodies like tissue transglutaminase, endomysial antibodies, and deamidated gliadin peptide antibodies. These antibody levels are significantly elevated in celiac patients consuming gluten. The gold standard for diagnosis is an endoscopy with small bowel biopsy showing villous atrophy. However, this invasive testing can often be avoided in patients with strongly positive antibody levels. HLA genetic testing can also support a diagnosis, as almost all celiac patients have the HLA-DQ2 and/or HLA-DQ8 genes.


The only proven treatment for celiac disease is strict adherence to a gluten-free diet for life. This requires avoidance of all foods and products containing wheat, rye, and barley proteins. Reading ingredient labels carefully and avoiding cross-contamination during meal preparation is key. Most patients see significant improvement in symptoms and antibody levels within weeks to months of eliminating gluten. However, in some celiac patients, the small intestine does not completely heal even with a strict gluten-free diet. These patients with non-responsive celiac disease may require medications or nutritional support.

Bariatric Surgery Overview

Bariatric surgery refers to a variety of weight loss procedures conducted on the stomach and/or intestines to induce weight loss in obese individuals. These surgeries work by either restricting stomach size or bypassing sections of the small intestine, leading to early satiety with smaller meals and decreased absorption of calories and nutrients. The three most common bariatric surgeries suitable for celiac patients are:

Roux-En-Y Gastric Bypass

This surgery staples off a small stomach pouch and attaches it directly to the mid-jejunum of the small intestine, bypassing the duodenum and proximal jejunum. Weight loss occurs through both gastric restriction and malabsorption.

Sleeve Gastrectomy

In this surgery, a large portion of the stomach is surgically removed, creating a smaller tubular pouch. No bypass of intestines occurs. Weight loss is achieved through restrictive means only.

Duodenal Switch

This procedure staples off most of the stomach while bypassing a significant portion of the small intestine. A sleeve gastrectomy is combined with a duodeno-ileal bypass to create both restrictive and malabsorptive weight loss mechanisms.

These surgeries result in significant metabolic changes and must be very carefully considered in celiac patients.

Safety Concerns for Celiac Patients

Several important safety considerations exist for celiac patients undergoing bariatric surgery:

Nutritional Deficiencies

Celiac patients are already at risk for deficiencies in iron, calcium, B12, folate, vitamin D, and fat-soluble vitamins due to chronic inflammation and impaired absorption. Bariatric procedures, especially malabsorptive techniques like gastric bypass and duodenal switch, further reduce absorption of nutrients. Strict adherence to vitamin and mineral supplementation is crucial after surgery to prevent dangerous deficiencies. Monitoring micronutrient levels through regular laboratory testing is advised.

Small Bowel Obstruction

With reduced intestinal length and anatomical changes, bowel obstructions can occur more frequently after bypass procedures. Celiac patients may be at even higher risk due to pre-existing inflammation and scarring in the small intestine. While rare, bowel obstructions require prompt surgical intervention.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

Dumping syndrome and dysmotility are common side effects after gastric bypass. Celiac patients with pre-existing GI issues may experience exacerbated symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and bloating after surgery, especially if gluten exposure continues. Careful symptom monitoring is important.

Medication and Nutrient Malabsorption

Certain medications and nutrients like iron, folate, and B12 require absorption in the bypassed sections of small intestine. Malabsorption of medications and supplements is highly likely after gastric bypass and duodenal switch procedures. Close physician management is necessary.

Anastomotic Ulcers

Marginal ulcers can develop at the staple line of the gastric pouch or at the intestinal anastomoses. While not directly tied to celiac disease, these ulcers can cause pain and bleeding. H. pylori infection, NSAID use, smoking, and regained weight all increase ulcer risk.

Gastrointestinal Malignancies

Due to chronic intestinal inflammation, celiac patients already have heightened risk of small bowel lymphoma and adenocarcinoma. Bypass procedures may make surveillance of the GI tract more challenging. Vigilance with endoscopy and imaging is warranted.

Careful patient selection and thorough preoperative counseling is key to optimizing surgical safety in celiacs. Patients must be clinically stable on the gluten-free diet with well-controlled symptoms and minimal nutritional deficiencies prior to surgery. Realistic postoperative expectations should be discussed regarding weight loss, GI side effects, and the lifelong commitment to vitamin supplementation. Certain high-risk patients may not be suitable candidates at all.

Maintaining a Gluten-Free Diet after Surgery

Adhering to a strict gluten-free diet is vital both before and after bariatric surgery in celiac patients. Several factors may make compliance more challenging:

Dietary Restrictions

After surgery, patients require a modified texture diet for 2-3 months with mechanical soft foods only. During this period, maintaining gluten-free grains and starches with the appropriate soft textures may be difficult. Dietitian guidance is essential.

Reduced Stomach Capacity

The surgically-reduced stomach pouch mandates eating smaller, more frequent meals. Celiac patients must take extra care to meet all nutritional needs within a restricted caloric intake on rendolent-free foods. Higher protein options like poultry, fish, eggs, and cheese may help increase satiety.


Vitamin and mineral supplements are a lifetime requirement after bariatric surgery. Celiac-friendly supplements with no gluten-containing excipients must be identified. Bariatric facilities should provide access to appropriate supplement formulations.

Social Events

Navigating social events with dietary restrictions can be challenging. Post-op celiac patients may find it harder to resist temptation or make suitable food choices in these scenarios. Planning meals ahead of time as much as possible is wise.

Alcohol Tolerance

Alcohol absorption and tolerance are greatly reduced for all patients after bariatric surgery. For celiacs, gluten-free alcohol options are advised, as impaired judgement could increase accidental gluten exposure. Moderation with alcohol is essential.

With proper education and preparation, most celiac patients are able to maintain a gluten-free diet successfully after bariatric surgery. However, dietary compliance and nutritional status must be closely monitored by the healthcare team.

Expected Weight Loss Outcomes

For celiac patients who adhere strictly to the post-operative diet, expected weight loss outcomes are similar to outcomes seen in non-celiac bariatric patients. However, data specifically evaluating weight loss in celiacs after surgery remains limited. Several studies suggest:

Gastric Bypass and Duodenal Switch

On average, gastric bypass and duodenal switch patients lose 60-80% of excess body weight within 12-18 months after surgery. These malabsorptive procedures typically produce greater and more rapid weight loss compared to purely restrictive operations, but carry higher nutritional risks.

Sleeve Gastrectomy

Weight loss outcomes are slightly more modest with sleeve gastrectomy, with patients losing 50-70% of excess weight on average. However, nutritional deficiencies are fewer with sleeve procedures. Weight loss plateaus sooner, around 18-24 months post-op.

Factors Affecting Weight Loss

Just as in non-celiac populations, factors like adherence to dietary changes, exercise, starting body weight, and lifestyle behaviors will impact weight loss outcomes. Those who struggle to maintain a gluten-free diet may experience reduced weight loss or weight regain. Close follow-up care with dietary counseling is vital.

While small in number, studies evaluating bariatric surgery in celiac patients report excellent weight loss and resolution of obesity-related comorbidities. However, further research is still needed to clarify the strengths and limitations of bariatric surgery specifically in celiac disease.

Case Studies: Bariatric Surgery in Celiac Patients

Examining case reports of celiac patients undergoing bariatric surgery can further illustrate the real-world application and safety profile:

Case 1

A 45 year-old woman with morbid obesity (BMI 52), celiac disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension underwent an uncomplicated laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass procedure. She maintained a gluten-free diet prior to surgery and continued strict avoidance postoperatively. At 1 year follow-up, she had lost nearly 90 lbs and achieved remission of her diabetes and hypertension without medications. No postoperative complications or nutritional deficiencies were observed.

Case 2

A 32 year-old man with celiac disease, BMI 48, depression and gastroesophageal reflux pursued a laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy. Preoperatively his celiac antibodies were well-controlled on a gluten-free diet. After surgery, he initially continued to avoid gluten. However, 18 months post-op he admitted to frequent gluten exposure. He gained back 25 lbs and developed recurrent celiac symptoms and antibody elevation. With improved dietary compliance his celiac markers began to decrease again.

Case 3

A 35 year-old woman with longstanding celiac disease, iron deficiency anemia and a BMI 42 kg/m2 opted for laparoscopic duodenal switch surgery. Despite iron supplementation and a gluten-free diet, her preoperative anemia persisted. Although she maintained a strict post-op diet, her anemia worsened for 2 years requiring intravenous iron infusions. All other micronutrient levels remained normal. At 3 years, her excess weight loss was 82% but she continued to require iron infusions.

These cases demonstrate that with diligent gluten avoidance and close medical follow-up, bariatric surgery can be executed safely in many celiac patients. However, risks like exacerbated nutritional deficiencies or weight regain with dietary non-compliance continue to exist. Individual factors must be carefully weighed.

The Role of Celiac Disease Testing Before and After Surgery

Given the lifelong gluten-free diet requirement for celiac patients, testing for celiac disease before and/or after bariatric surgery has important implications:

Time of Testing Pros Cons
Preoperative Testing – Allows newly diagnosed celiacs to adopt GF diet prior to surgery
-Optimizes nutritional status before surgery
– Avoids worsening of undiagnosed celiac post-op
– Potential for false negative if not ingesting gluten
-May delay surgery for diagnosis/optimization
Postoperative Testing – Confirms or rules out causes of ongoing symptoms
-Detects “unmasked” celiac disease
– May falsely normalize with gluten-free diet
– Challenging to reintroduce gluten after surgery

Ideally, all patients should be screened preoperatively with celiac blood work if they are maintaining a regular gluten-containing diet. Patients with positive antibodies and/or symptoms concerning for celiac disease should undergo confirmatory small bowel biopsy prior to bariatric surgery.

Testing celiac markers postoperatively has value if ongoing gastrointestinal symptoms present after surgery and other common causes have been excluded. Persistent iron or vitamin deficiencies after surgery may warrant checking for celiac disease as well. However, false negative results are common after sustained gluten avoidance. Deliberate gluten challenge carries risks after bariatric surgery and may be poorly tolerated.

All bariatric patients should thus be educated on celiac disease symptoms to report should they develop postoperatively. Ongoing monitoring for malnutrition is also prudent even in patients with negative preoperative celiac testing.


In summary, bariatric surgery offers an effective means for achieving significant and sustained weight loss in patients with celiac disease. However, individuals with celiac disease contemplating bariatric surgery should be aware of the additional considerations and risks for complications. Maintaining strict adherence to a gluten-free diet before and after surgery is imperative, as is close monitoring for nutritional deficiencies. An experienced multidisciplinary bariatric team is best equipped to provide the necessary perioperative medical, dietary, and emotional support. With careful patient selection and management, bariatric surgery can be carried out successfully in celiacs, while also benefiting comorbid conditions associated with obesity. Further research is still warranted to better determine best practices and optimal surgical techniques for this unique patient population. For now, an individualized approach focused on dietary compliance, nutritional status, and appropriate post-operative follow-up will enable the best outcomes after bariatric surgery in patients with celiac disease.

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