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Every year, we seem to be presented with new solutions for weight loss that promise to help people shed pounds rapidly. From the old-school grapefruit diet to the ever-popular keto diet, there's no shortage of trendy diets to lose weight—especially in Hollywood.
But now, instead of hearing about a trendy diet craze or an expensive shake that celebs and social-media influencers swear by to trim their tummies (many of whom conveniently leave out the key detail that they work out every day with trainers and have personal chefs whipping up their meals), a prescription injectable medication is now being touted as a surefire solution for people who want to shed weight with little effort. In fact, it is becoming so popular, that the hashtag "Ozempic" has been viewed almost 350 million times on TikTok. And it is rumored that many celebrities are turning to this medication, too—although sources won't spill the tea on exactly which celebs have actually used this injectable. Its significant increase in popularity has even caused a shortage of the drug, possibly preventing people who really need it from accessing it, which is an issue in itself.
Yet, while this buzzy solution is taking the internet and certain social circles by storm, many of us may be unclear on what Ozempic actually is, and if it truly is the best solution for weight loss.
What is Ozempic?
37.3 million people have diabetes in the U.S., and having the disease puts this population at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Even with dietary interventions, insulin injections and other medications that help manage this condition, some data suggests that the prevalence of uncontrolled diabetes is almost 50%, increasing with age—highlighting how our past treatment plans haven't been cutting it for every person diagnosed with diabetes.
Ozempic is an FDA-approved medication that falls into a category called glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists, or GLP-1 agonists, for short. This type of medication activates GLP-1 receptors in the pancreas, which leads to an increase in insulin release and reduced glucagon release, helping the body see lower blood glucose levels. People are instructed to take this medication once a week, as prescribed by a health care provider.
But this medication doesn't only affect the body's secretion rate of insulin and glucagon—two hormones that impact blood sugars. GLP-1 agonists, like Ozempic, can also cause a reduced appetite and delayed glucose absorption due to slower gastric emptying. And because slower digestion keeps people fuller for a longer time, that effect is where the weight-loss buzz comes into play.
This class of medication is meant to be recommended in combination with metformin, sulfonylureas, thiazolidinediones or basal insulin to enhance glucose control, while offsetting the weight gain associated with using supplemental insulin and some of these other medication options. Many health conditions tend to co-occur, and having obesity and diabetes are two risk factors for cardiovascular disease, tackling these two factors with one medication is a goal many people have to help keep their health in check.
According to the Ozempic website, "in adults with type 2 diabetes and known heart disease, Ozempic reduces the risk of major cardiovascular events such as stroke, heart attack, or death."
So, Ozempic was designed to help people manage their blood sugars while helping them avoid excessive weight gain when taking other medications. But, what if you don't have diabetes and you need to lose weight? Can taking this medication be a solution for this population too?
"Obesity by itself (defined as having a body mass index over 30 mg/kg2) is a chronic disease requiring lifelong management," Nina Crowley, Ph.D., RD, Professional Affiliations and Education Manager for Seca Medical Body Composition Division, shared. "So, while people who have a few pounds to lose may be attracted to a medication like Ozempic, there is a clear distinction between desiring weight loss and having the medical condition of obesity. And due to FDA guidelines, Ozempic is a drug indicated for diabetes."
Is Using Ozempic Safe for Weight Loss?
While people are leaning on Ozempic for weight loss and are seeing results, the Ozempic website clearly states that while it may help you lose some weight, it is not for weight loss. It also contains the statement that "Ozempic is not a weight loss drug." Clearly, the makers of this drug are not promoting the off-label use of this medication that has been the weight-loss solution many people are loving.
Anecdotal and some clinical evidence suggests that people without diabetes who take Ozempic tend to lose weight. In fact, one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine evaluating almost 2,000 adults with a BMI of 30 or greater found that those who received this medication while following certain healthy lifestyle interventions had an average weight loss of 14.9% from baseline, compared with an average weight loss of 2.4% in the placebo group. It needs to be mentioned that this study was funded by Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer of Ozempic.
There is a lot of chatter in the wellness world regarding the issues with and inaccuracies of the BMI scale, so its use in the above study, and as a measure in which healthcare providers prescribe medications such as Ozempic and Wegovy is concerning.
While the FDA has not approved Ozempic for weight loss specifically, it has authorized Wegovy, a medication made with a higher dose of the same chemical, for weight-loss support in people who are in the overweight BMI category and have one weight-related aliment (like high blood pressure) and people who are in the obese BMI category. "Both use pens to inject semagulatide, and gradually increase to a higher sustained dose based on the individual and tolerance," Crowley explained.
Until the FDA authorizes Ozempic as a safe medication for people who do not have diabetes and there are more clinical trials conducted to demonstrate this effect, health care providers can not definitively say that this medication is safe for this population.
It should also be noted that an April 2022 study showed that after stopping Ozempic, most people regained two-thirds of the weight they had initially lost. Blood pressure, cholesterol levels and other measures of health also returned to what they were prior to starting the drug. This study suggests that in order to see the health benefits of this drug in the longterm, you need to stay on it indefinitely. As this drug was only approved by the FDA in 2017, there isn't enough longterm research showing if extended use of this drug is safe.
Are There Side Effects Linked to Ozempic?
Every medication we put in our body comes with potential side effects, some being more concerning than others.
Per the Ozempic website, using this medication may cause serious side effects, including possible thyroid tumors, including cancer. Other serious side effects include pancreatitis, vision changes, low blood sugar, kidney failure and gallbladder problems.
The most common side effects of Ozempic may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach (abdominal) pain and constipation.
"Health care providers can lead discussions on risk benefit analysis of medications versus living with untreated diabetes or obesity or both," Crowley added.
Bottom Line: How to Achieve Weight Loss Healthfully
High-profile celebs may be fun to watch on our screens and in the tabloids, but leaning on non-medical professionals isn't the way to manage your own healthcare decisions. If your healthcare provider recommends taking Ozempic for weight-loss support, while managing a diabetes diagnosis and you are in favor of following suit, it is important to be crystal clear of the potential side effects of doing so and weighting the risks versus the benefits before you take your first shot.
Whether you have diabetes or not and are trying to lose weight or improve you health in any way, know that there are research-backed (and delicious) methods to help you be healthy for life, that don't require medication. Focusing on certain nutrients, eating anti-inflammatory foods and including exercise in your daily habits can help people manage their weight in a healthy way, although it may take a longer time to see results than leaning on the powerful and popular medication.