Curious About Ozempic for Weight Loss? An Obesity Doctor Just Weighed In With a Healthy Dose of Reality

Updated: Feb. 13, 2024

A new class of drugs seems to be the wonder-cure for obesity, but a leading medical specialist drops a bombshell: If you’ve been struggling to lose weight your whole life, it might actually be your biology.

Medications like Ozempic (semaglutide) and Wegovy have gotten a lot of media bandwidth for weight loss because:

A.) They work. In one study on semaglutide use in people with excess weight or obesity, those on the medication who also made lifestyle changes lost nearly 15% of their body weight, on average. That’s major.

And B.) The fact that they work is driving a lot of people without obesity to pay out-of-pocket (sometimes to the tune of $1500 a month) to take the drug only to lose a few pounds—from Chelsea Handler to Elon Musk, who have both been public about taking this type of medication.

The buzz around using Ozempic for weight loss has driven demand through the roof, to the point where the folks who really need it for medical reasons—mainly people with diabetes, as well as obesity—have had trouble getting it. But now that these drugs are available, the best way—clinically—to use them to address the obesity epidemic in the United States, is for licensed healthcare professionals to prescribe based on medical needs by physicians who understand these conditions and how to treat them.

Let’s back up for a second. Did you know that there are more than 400 genes that have been tied to overweight and obesity? So if you’ve been struggling to lose weight your whole life, it might actually be your biology. It’s these biological factors—which are out of any person’s control—that, in 2013, prompted the American Medical Association to recognize that obesity is a chronic, progressive and complicated disease that requires medical treatment. Here’s another fact: 99% of doctors aren’t trained to treat it.

So most physicians default to recommending that a patient should eat less and move more. Yes: While healthy eating and movement are important for wellness, they’re actually an incomplete approach for obesity. There’s a better solution that can involve medication, but the diet, exercise plan and prescription needs to be created by a licensed healthcare professional as part of a holistic picture.

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How do diabetes drugs like Ozempic help with weight loss?

Ozempic is one in a class of drugs called GLP-1s, or glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists. Even though most are FDA-approved to treat diabetes, physicians have been prescribing them for weight loss. Your body actually makes GLP-1—it’s a hormone that’s produced in the small intestines in response to meals, and its job is to signal your brain when you’re full. It also helps regulate blood sugar and slows stomach emptying (so you feel fuller, longer).

People who have diabetes or obesity (or both) may not produce enough GLP-1, or their bodies may be resistant to the GLP-1 they produce. So taking a medication that can mimic its action—like Ozempic and Wegovy—could aid with weight loss.

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So are drugs like Ozempic the answer for obesity?

GLP-1s seem to be picking up steam as a new gold standard in weight-loss care. Many people face access issues, though: GLP-1s are expensive medications without insurance coverage. Some insurers don’t cover medication for obesity, and some states don’t require insurance plans to cover obesity treatment.

The other thing to keep in mind is that obesity has many causes—it’s a complex disease—and GLP-1 may not be the missing factor for everyone. Other drugs may be a more effective solution. It takes a physician who specializes in weight care to personalize weight loss treatment for an individual patient. A truly effective weight loss approach includes features like a behavior change program, health coaching, and a virtual community for support…because medication alone will only go so far. For example: At Found (where I lead medical strategy), members of our program who received both medication and support lost at least 13% more weight, and in some cases up to 229% more, compared to people who received medication alone in clinical trials.

It’s important for anyone with obesity to work with a care provider to learn what’s caused their condition, get a treatment plan designed to address it, follow a healthy lifestyle, and monitor it over time to adjust strategies (remember, obesity is progressive). The good news is that there are more options than ever to help treat obesity. Medication may help, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Rekha Kumar, MD, MS is an endocrinologist, obesity medicine specialist and the chief medical officer of Found, a clinician-led weight care clinic. She has authored papers and textbook chapters on the medical management of obesity and served as the former medical director of the American Board of Obesity Medicine.

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