How Is Obesity Treated?

kali9 / Getty Images
kali9 / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Jonathan Purtell, RDN

Obesity is a common condition that occurs as a result of excess fat accumulation in your body. Nearly 3 out of 4 adults who are 20 years old or older are overweight or live with obesity. Obesity can also be a risk factor for other health conditions, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and sleep apnea.

Fortunately, there are several different ways to treat obesity and manage a weight that's right for you. The ultimate goal of treatment is to reach or maintain a healthy weight and minimize any obesity-related health risks and complications. Healthcare providers may recommend lifestyle changes, medications, and surgery, depending on your condition.

Lifestyle Changes

In most cases, lifestyle changes on their own can help you maintain a weight that's right for you and reduce obesity-related complications. While different medications and medical conditions can cause obesity, other habits like living a sedentary lifestyle or eating a diet high in fat and sugar can also contribute to the amount of fat in your body. To manage obesity, your healthcare provider may recommend the following modifications:

  • Getting good quality sleep: Research has shown a link between a lack of sleep and obesity. That's because sleep deprivation can increase hunger and lead to excess food intake. Getting the recommended 7 to 8 hours per night can help regulate your weight.

  • Eating a nutritious diet: To lose excess fat, you typically have to eat a certain number of calories. Your healthcare provider might recommend you start implementing small changes to your meals, such as incorporating fruits, vegetables, legumes, seafood, and lean proteins. They may also encourage you to slowly reduce your intake of processed and sugary foods.

  • Moving your body regularly: Treating obesity requires reducing the adipose tissue, or fat, that your body carries. Regular physical activity can help people burn fat by increasing their energy expenditure. A minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity can help you lose weight and improve your quality of life. Your healthcare provider can help you develop a list of physical activities that are beneficial for you.

Medications

If lifestyle changes aren't enough to improve your condition, your provider may recommend adding medications. Different types of medications can help you lose fat and reduce the risk of any obesity-related complications. These medications work best if they are also paired with lifestyle changes. While some of these medications can help you feel less hungry or satisfied more quickly, others can make fat absorption more difficult for your body.

Prescription medications currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat obesity include:

  • Xenical (orlistat): Limits the amount of fat your body absorbs

  • Qysmia (phentermine and topiramate): Curbs appetite

  • Contrave (naltrexone-bupropion): Increases satiety (how full you are) and reduces appetite

  • Saxenda (liraglutide): Acts like the glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) hormone, which regulates appetite

  • Wegovy (semaglutide): Another GLP-1 agonist that helps manage appetite

  • IMCIVREE (setmelanotide): Reduces your appetite and speeds up your metabolism

Sometimes healthcare providers prescribe medications that treat other health conditions, like type 2 diabetes, to help treat obesity, known as "off-label" use. For example, the FDA approved semaglutide, under different brand names, Ozempic and Rybelsus, for treating type 2 diabetes. But some healthcare providers may prescribe these drugs to treat obesity.

Surgeries and Procedures

If lifestyle changes and/or medications aren't working as well as you or your provider hoped, weight loss surgery, commonly known as bariatric surgery, may be a treatment option for you. Surgery is one of the most effective ways to keep off weight. However, for the effect of surgery to stay effective over time, you need to also engage in lifestyle changes.

To qualify for weight loss surgery, you must have a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or above and be at risk of obesity-related health complications.



A Note on BMI

Body Mass Index, or BMI, is a biased and outdated metric that uses your weight and height to make assumptions about body fat, and by extension, your health. This metric is flawed in many ways and does not factor in your body composition, ethnicity, sex, race, and age. Despite its flaws, the medical community still uses BMI because it’s an inexpensive and quick way to analyze health data.



Some common options for weight loss surgery include:

  • Gastric bypass surgery: This is the most common weight loss surgery. For the procedure, a surgeon will connect a small part of your stomach to the middle part of your intestine, which limits food consumption. This surgery also curbs your body's ability to absorb and store fat.

  • Gastric banding: In this surgery, a surgeon wraps a band around your stomach to make it smaller. This makes you feel full even after eating limited amounts of food. Gastric banding can help you lose about one-third to one-half of your body fat. However, it may not be quite as effective as other weight loss surgeries.

  • Gastrectomy: In this procedure, a surgeon will remove a portion of your stomach and create a cylindrical or sleeve-like shape of your stomach to help you reduce food intake and help you lose weight faster.

Living With Obesity

Obesity can raise your risk of other health conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension (high blood pressure). Unfortunately, research has shown that it can be hard for people living with obesity to get treatment in the first place, as some healthcare providers might exhibit implicit or explicit weight bias by patronizing or making assumptions about their health. These attitudes mean that people with obesity are less likely to trust healthcare providers and more likely to avoid or put off doctor's visits.

However, advocating for your health is essential. If you're not getting the care you need from your healthcare provider, use online directories or check in with your insurance company about other healthcare providers that you can work with to treat obesity.

Related: Here’s Why Your Body Composition Matters More Than Your Weight

A Quick Review

Obesity is a common condition and fortunately, many effective treatments can help you manage your weight and reduce your risk of complications. In most cases, small lifestyle changes can make a big impact on your health. But if lifestyle changes aren't enough, healthcare providers may recommend medications or surgery.

If you're experiencing obesity or may be at risk of the condition, talk to your healthcare provider to get an individualized weight loss plan. With the right treatment plan, your healthcare provider can help you reach your goals and improve your quality of life.

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