Lovelace doctor targets weight issues with ‘mental’ surgery

Dr. Duc Vuong

For a thin man, Dr. Duc Vuong spends an unusual amount of time thinking about obesity and weight loss.

That might not be too surprising, considering Vuong, who has an office at Lovelace Westside Hospital, is the medical director of bariatric surgery for Lovelace Medical Group, which serves patients in the Rio Rancho area. In broad strokes, that means he performs operations that restrict food intake and decrease the absorption of food in the stomach and intestines for people who are extremely overweight. One common method is a gastric sleeve, which removes about two-thirds of the stomach.

What is surprising are the methods Vuong has developed to help his patients control their weight. He said the work he does with a patient’s mental state — just talking to and educating them — is just as important as, if not more important than, the surgery itself.

“I do a lot of mental surgery,” he said.

Vuong has been recognized for developing a support group program that keeps patients on track toward their long-term weight loss goals. Education and support groups are important, he said, because nearly one in three of all bariatric surgeries fails, meaning the patient doesn’t manage to lose weight or gains the weight back.

One example he gave of working to change a patent’s mental state was about a patient who had been overweight most of her life, since she was 17. When Vuong asked her to imagine herself at her ideal weight, he said she was only able to give a vague number, somewhere between 150 and 180 pounds.

She wasn’t able to visualize herself at a healthy weight, he said, because in her adult life she had never been at a healthy weight.

“(All my patients) know water and fruits and vegetables are good for them,” he said.

Much of what comprises the typical American diet shouldn’t even be called food, he said.

“I don’t even like ‘junk food’ because it implies there’s food in it,” he said.

Modifying eating habits

In the month before he performs any surgery, he said, part of his goal is to change the way his patients think about food. That’s why he requires his patients to attend a series of classes to not only inform them about the surgery, but also, hopefully, change their eating habits and even increase the variety of foods they eat.

He likes to quiz his patients about fresh produce by bringing in things many would have a hard time identifying, such as ginger roots, Japanese purple yams and parsnips. Without telling the patients what they are, he asks them to name the vegetable, then has them describe what it smells and looks like.

To shake things up a bit, he sometimes brings exotic vegetables – like romanesco or sunchoke – as well.

“It’s going to get weird. We get into the bok choy,” he said.

That’s one way he exposes people to a variety of foods.

He also asks his patients – many of whom identify themselves as “foodies,” but can’t identify a raw vegetable when Vuong brings one to class – to question how much they really know about food.

It’s part of an effort to try to add variety to his patients’ diets, which are often sorely lacking among those who are severely overweight, he said.

That may be due to physical limitations that lead people to stick to a routine. Breaking that routine and going to a different kind of restaurant, for instance, can be difficult for severely overweight people because it means risking an adventure navigating booths that aren’t large enough or entering an uncomfortable situation and having people stare at them, he said.

“Most obese patients order the same things at the same restaurants,” he said. “They lose the variety that makes life interesting.”

Reluctant to change

Vuong has heard patients say they won’t change what they eat for all sorts of reasons, including one patient who said she would only eat foods that are purple, he said.

“It’s always about food,” said Vuong, who is slender and tall. “… Everyone wants to blame it on exercise.”

Eating healthy foods is vital to losing weight, though, he said, adding that he keeps a garden and maintains his weight primarily by eating right.

“I’m not particularly fit. I couldn’t run a marathon tomorrow.”

Exercise will only get a severely overweight person so far, he said. The real key is actually changing the patient’s diet, he said, but to do that usually requires a change in the patient’s overall lifestyle as well. That includes encouraging his patients to do volunteer work, he said, which often helps patients maintain a socially active lifestyle and exposes them to a variety of different people and the struggles they are going through.

“One of the worst things about obesity is social isolation,” he said.

Vuong said what it really boils down to is changing the way his patients think. Changing the way a person thinks can lead to a change in that person’s day-to-day choices and lifestyle, he said. His conversations with his patients — which often touch on the patient’s love life, relationships and personal goals — tend to get very emotional.

“Usually it ends up with a lot of crying,” he said.

To learn more about bariatrics at Lovelace Westside Hospital, call 727-2300 or go to



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