TikTok is full of influencers showing off their stunning before-and-after shots and their weight loss after using the new class of weight loss drugs, but too many patients see this as a “quick fix” without the possible downsides.
The buzz about the new weight loss drugs has created a shortage, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to last for several months. The medications called semaglutide are sold under different brand names, including Ozempic and Wegovy, and promise patients a quick fix for weight loss.
Experts caution that it’s essential to understand these are not miracle drugs—and that there are risks to taking them outside their intended use. There is significant demand for the drugs. In 2019, more than 11 percent of the population was diagnosed with diabetes, while more than four in ten adults qualified as obese in 2020.
Like every medication, there are side effects. The most common side effects are gastrointestinal issues, such as nausea, constipation, diarrhea—and, more rarely, pancreatitis, gallbladder disease, and diabetic retinopathy.
These drugs have been extensively studied, but their relatively recent approval means researchers still don’t know what the effects of taking them long-term might be. There’s also little data about what happens when people suddenly stop taking them—which many may be forced to do amid current shortages.
Research suggests that stopping this medication could cause patients to regain weight, especially if they didn’t make any lifestyle changes.
“In almost all weight-loss studies, it depends on your foundation,” says Stanford endocrinologist Sun Kim. “Your efforts at lifestyle will determine how much weight you lose. You’ll do well if you have your foundations like food, exercise, and sleep.” If not, you might regain as much as 20 percent of the weight loss per year.
These medications can also be costly, especially without insurance. Kim says an injection pen can run more than $1,000.
Robert Gabbay, the American Diabetes Association’s chief scientific and medical officer, says the organization is “very much concerned” about the Ozempic shortage. “The medication has been an important tool for people with diabetes,” he says. “Not only does it lower blood glucose and weight, but it has been shown to decrease cardiovascular events—heart attacks—one of the leading causes of death for those living with diabetes.”
In addition to all these warnings, insurers have yet to add coverage for these drugs, costing over $1000 a dose.
The real issue, however, is the irresponsible use of social media to promote a drug with many question marks. You can bet that the drug companies, although not involved, are loving this buzz.