Plasma total cysteine (tCys) concentrations are associated with BMI. To study the relationship between tCys and BMI, we monitored the changes in serum concentrations of tCys and metabolically related compounds in sixty obese patients (BMI 50–60 kg/m2) from before to 1 year after either gastric bypass surgery (mean 30 % weight loss) or duodenal switch surgery (mean 41 % weight loss). A total of fifty-eight healthy persons (BMI 17–31 kg/m2) served as controls. Before surgery, obese patients had modestly (approximately 17 %) higher mean serum tCys, and markedly (>2-fold) higher glutamate concentrations, than controls (P ≤ 0·001 for both). Serial examinations after surgery revealed that gastric bypass patients had no change in tCys concentrations (P = 0·22), while duodenal switch patients showed a modest (approximately 12 %) but significant decrease in tCys (P < 0·001). Total homocysteine concentrations increased in duodenal switch patients but not in gastric bypass patients. Independent of surgery type, serum concentrations of methionine and cystathionine decreased (P < 0·05 for both), while serum glutathione and taurine remained stable. Glutamate concentrations declined, as did γ-glutamyltransferase activity (P < 0·001 for both). These results show that despite 30 % weight loss, and decreases in methionine, cystathionine and glutamate, there was no significant change in serum tCys in patients after gastric bypass surgery. The decrease in tCys in patients undergoing duodenal switch could be related to malabsorption. The present findings do not suggest that BMI is a causal determinant of plasma tCys.