Can Oprah remove the stigma around weight-loss drugs like Ozempic?

Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah Winfrey. (Getty Images) (Roy Rochlin via Getty Images)

Oprah Winfrey is ready and willing to start having conversations about weight-loss medications, with the goal of removing shame and stigma.

The media mogul threw her hat in the ring while hosting Oprah Daily's "The Life You Want Class: State of Weight" conversation on Wednesday, where she was joined by medical professionals to discuss the latest drugs, including semaglutide, which is marketed as Ozempic or Wegovy, and Tirzepatide, marketed as Mounjaro.

The main point made by Winfrey, along with others on the show who are specialists in research and treatment of obesity, was that obesity is a disease that should be addressed through all available means, including medication.

Why is there shame surrounding weight-loss drugs?

"People think of obesity as more of a lifestyle or behavioral issue rather than a medical issue," Dr. Melanie Jay, director of the NYU Langone Comprehensive Program on Obesity, tells Yahoo Life. "People think [those with obesity] eat too much and don't exercise enough. And therefore, you know, why do they need a medication if they just do that? This segment was really trying to educate the public on why obesity is a disease."

Jay — who participated in the conversation with Winfrey alongside fellow obesity specialist Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, psychologist Rachel Goldman and Sima Sistani, the CEO of Weight Watchers — said that the false belief about the role that personal behaviors play in a person's risk of diabetes has implications on the policy level as well. "Medicare and Medicaid don't cover these drugs because somehow obesity is not as much of an important disease," she says. "Some people can lose weight just by really aggressive lifestyle changes through programs like Weight Watchers, but a lot of people can't do that. They'll lose a lot of weight and then they gain it back. And it's not their fault."

Winfrey herself addressed the idea that taking medication for weight loss can be seen as "the easy way out." In reality, Jay says it acts as additional support.

That's how Real Housewives of Orange County cast member Emily Simpson used Ozempic, sharing with ABC News that she had also gotten liposuction on her arms and a breast lift following body changes. Most notably, she shifted her eating habits and developed a new workout routine. People on the internet still shamed her for utilizing the drug.

"I hear patients say, 'No, no, no, I don't want to try meds, I want to try to do it on my own,'" says Jay. "Patients will say that as if there's a right way to do it. But really, there are different treatment options. Some treatment options work better for others, and people should have the choice of which treatment options they want to use."

The shame regarding bodies and weight in general makes the subject more difficult to tackle. "Obesity, because it's something you see, also becomes part of a person's identity in a different way than other diseases," says Jay.

Celebrities who have been rumored to take Ozempic or have admitted taking the drug without the qualifications of obesity could also have an impact on the stigma, according to Jay. "That could sometimes perpetuate it as being a vanity drug and not a real medical drug."

How can Oprah have an impact on removing shame?

Struggling with weight and being a victim of body shaming is something that Winfrey is very familiar with.

"I've been on this journey for most of my life. My highest weight was 237 pounds," she shared during the "State of Weight" segment. "I don’t know if there is another public person whose weight struggle has been exploited as much as mine over the years."

The public figure has also been outspoken about the resources she's utilized to lose weight — most notably, her longstanding partnership with Weight Watchers — and has proven to have immense influence. A single tweet in 2016 urging followers to join her in her journey with the weight management program led to a 20% increase of Weight Watchers' stock. An investor herself, Winfrey made money from the sparked interest as well.

Now, she's shedding light on the possibility that Weight Watchers alone might not be the solution for her own weight management.

"You all have watched me diet and diet and diet and diet. It’s a recurring thing because my body always seems to want to go back to a certain weight," she said, urging that additional medical treatments for obesity should be available for people to explore. "It should be yours to own and not to be shamed about it."

Jay believes that Winfrey's reach is impactful.

"We've been talking about obesity as a disease for many years now, but it has not really gone mainstream. And it's starting to because now you have a medicine that obviously targets some pathways that reverse it or provide weight loss in a lot of people," says Jay. "Oprah has the credibility, the platform and the ability to get the message out that obesity is something that is not an individual's fault and that it's something that can be treated if people want it to be treated."