National Party deputy leader and former deputy PM Paula Bennett has revealed she has undergone gastric bypass surgery.

Bennett, 48, underwent the weight loss operation at a private hospital before Christmas.

She has gone public with the procedure through the Herald on Sunday, talking candidly about the health reasons for having the operation and saying she hoped talking about it would encourage other New Zealanders in their respective weight battles.

Hi. As per the Herald article, I have gone public with my decision to have weightloss surgery. I had a gastric by pass...

Posted by Paula Bennett on Saturday, 20 January 2018

"I hope it sends a positive message out there to other people with weight or health problems that this may be a solution for them," she said in an exclusive interview.

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"I decided to undergo the procedure before last year's election, it has been on my mind for years, it is no secret that I have had weight issues."

Bennett joins an ever-growing list of political high-flyers who have undergone variations of gastric surgery; including former PMs Dame Jenny Shipley and David Lange, current MP Anne Tolley, and ex-MPs Dame Tariana Turia, Chester Borrows, Marama Fox and Donna Awatere Huata.

Gastric bypasses, which involve making a small pouch from the upper stomach, meaning people feel fuller despite eating less, take up to three hours to complete and are normally done via keyhole surgery.

Combined with a healthy diet and exercise, in most cases they lead to dramatic weight losses and an improved quality of life.

"I had arthritis issues as well as the aforementioned struggles with my weight," Bennett said.

"After a lot of thought about the future of my health and putting this first with the right medical advice, this was my best step and I am looking forward to grabbing this year and putting my best foot forward."

The MP for Auckland's Upper Harbour electorate said she was well on the road to recovery ahead of big political year.

"I am recovering well and getting used to my new diet. I can't wait to get back to working the electorate next week and next month with our big National team in Wellington."

As Bennett prepares to return to full duties, Tolley and Fox opened up about their decision to have weight-loss surgery and the impact it had had.

Fox underwent bariatric surgery in 2014 for health reasons. At the time she weighed 165kg, and has since lost more than 90kg.

"I did it because I wanted to live for my grandchildren and children," she said.

"I thought if I don't do anything I'm not going to be here to see them grow. So, I wanted to make the drastic change so that I would be here as a grandmother and a mother for my children and my grandchildren."

Fox said the surgery changed her life as well as the way people viewed her as a politician and person.

"It seems like I was treated with more respect as to my role as a politician," she said.

"People disregard you when you're big, especially if you are a woman, as if your contribution is not worthy."

Tolley had weight-loss surgery in 2006 after struggling with her weight for years and being told she was prediabetes.

Marama Fox, pictured in September 2017, has surgery in 2014. She says people disregard you when you're big, especially if you're a woman. Photo / Warren Buckland
Marama Fox, pictured in September 2017, has surgery in 2014. She says people disregard you when you're big, especially if you're a woman. Photo / Warren Buckland

The National MP said she has gone from a size 20 to a 14 and "the diabetes is not the threat that it had been in the past".

"People treat you differently when you are overweight and when you are seriously overweight from when you are not," she said.

"I think we have this perception of people who are overweight that it's all in their own hands and they're just greedy people and they can't control how they eat.

"Whereas in fact when you get to a stage where you've got 20, 30, 40 kilos to lose, that's an enormous commitment over a long, long period of time to make substantial changes in the way that you live. And unless you've been there or worked with people who have been in that position you don't really understand it."

University of Auckland political marketing expert Dr Edward Elder said an overweight politician may be less appealing to voters for several reasons.

This included the fact that their weight could be seen as a signifier of a lack of discipline and control.

"Conversely, someone who goes through the body transformation process, either by surgery or through more traditional methods, can be perceived as showing initiative and/or developing discipline. Its character building, if you will," said Elder.

Elder also said that if a politician, especially a Prime Minister, was seen as unhealthy, it could lead to the perception of potential instability.

"In the sense that if the Prime Minister had to, for some reason, have emergency surgery … it creates this implicit sign of instability."

He said weight gain could be a result of a politician's demanding schedule, which made it difficult to maintain a routine such as healthy eating.

Bariatric surgeon Dr Richard Babor believed about 1200 publicly and privately funded bariatric surgeries were performed in New Zealand a year.

He said bariatric surgery costs about $20,000 privately.

Babor said that like most patients, politicians were likely to have weight-loss surgery to improve their health or quality of life such as being able to keep up with their kids or ride a bike.

Bariatric surgeon Dr Richard Babor believed about 1200 publicly and privately funded bariatric surgeries were performed in New Zealand a year. Photo / Michael Craig
Bariatric surgeon Dr Richard Babor believed about 1200 publicly and privately funded bariatric surgeries were performed in New Zealand a year. Photo / Michael Craig

"Plus with that added thing that they are in the public eye and so probably that stigma of obesity affects them more than the average person who is living a private life."

He said the fact that politicians were having weight-loss surgery showed obesity affected everybody, not just people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

According to Ministry of Health figures 3494 Kiwis underwent publicly funded weight-loss surgery, including gastric bypass and gastric band surgery, in the past 10 financial years.

The numbers have increased over the years with a record 489 publicly funded surgeries performed in the 2016/2017 – compared with 124 in 2007/2008.

Publicly funded bariatric surgery, including pre- and post-operative appointments, carries a price tag of $17,843.42 excluding GST.

Ministry of Health manager of electives and national services Jess Smaling said patients were only put on the waiting list for publicly funded bariatric surgery once they successfully completed a pre-surgical programme and met medical milestones to be suitable for the procedure.

She said patients were prioritised according to their level of need and ability to benefit.

"Where patients meet the threshold they go into a programme to prepare them for possible surgery, which includes medical and psychological assessments, and the patient starting an exercise regime and needing to lose some weight.

"This is to ensure the patient is fully aware of the risks and benefits as well as beginning and adhering to the regime they will need to follow after surgery, which may be for life," she said.

The Ministry does not hold information on the number of privately funded surgeries.