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Beyond the headlines: Answers to 7 key questions about prescription anti-obesity medications
As a leader in weight health for 60 years, WeightWatchers answers seven key questions about the prescription weight-loss drugs making headlines.
1. What are the medications everyone is talking about?
The prescription drugs generating weight-loss buzz in the media are glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists (GLP-1s), or dual agonists. Originally developed to lower blood sugar for people living with type 2 diabetes, the drugs also help treat obesity and reduce weight among people who medically qualify. As a result, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several GLP-1s as medications to treat the disease of obesity, including liraglutide and semaglutide. Ozempic, Wegovy and Saxenda are a few of the more recognizable brand names for these medications. Tirzepatide, brand name Mounjaro, is expected to be approved by the FDA for the treatment of obesity later this year.
2. How do these medications work?
GLP-1s are hormones produced in the gut that send signals to the brain to regulate appetite and digestion. GLP-1 medications reduce appetite and slow down gastric emptying, causing people to feel fuller longer.
What’s exciting about these medications is how they highlight a biological basis for obesity. They target the factors in the gut and the brain that drive the development of obesity. People report that the medications quiet the mental chatter in their brains around food, which helps them to engage in healthier habits over the long term.
3. What types of weight-loss results are typical for people taking these medications?
The weight-loss results tied to GLP-1s are significant. On average, people taking semaglutide see an average of 15% body-weight loss over a one-year period, whereas people taking tirzepatide average 21% body-weight loss over a similar period of time.
With results like these, it’s easy to see why these medications are considered game-changers for weight loss. Obesity is a complex chronic condition with both biological and behavioral drivers. These medications provide an important new tool to help address the biological components of obesity, which can facilitate healthier behaviors and weight loss.
The game-changing results go beyond weight loss, however. People also see improvements in diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol management. Sometimes they can even lower the dose of or discontinue medications that treat those conditions. However, there’s no pill or injection that can help you eat healthier, move more or shift to a more positive mindset. That’s why it’s critical to pair these medications with an evidence-based lifestyle program like WeightWatchers to optimize long-term health and wellness.
4. Who is eligible for GLP-1 medications?
The medications are prescribed for people living with obesity. The FDA has strict qualification guidelines for prescribing these medications. GLP-1s are intended for people who have a body mass index (BMI) over 30 or a BMI of 27 who also have qualifying health conditions like diabetes or hypertension. The medication is not for someone simply seeking to lose 5 or 10 pounds.
GLP-1s are not recommended for people with a history of certain types of cancer or who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant. The decision to take any medication, whether for weight management, allergies, arthritis or otherwise, should always be made between a person and their healthcare provider.
5. Are GLP-1 medications a quick fix?
Not at all. Weight loss takes work no matter which route you take because maintaining weight loss requires long-term lifestyle changes, and these medications are utilized long term as well. Also, unlike taking acetaminophen for a headache, these pills aren’t something you just take as needed. GLP-1 medications are designed to treat the chronic disease of obesity, and the FDA recommends long-term use.
6. With obesity treatment using medications, why do people need behavioral weight management?
The recent developments in prescription medications offer new options for people living with obesity. However, medication is optimized when paired with science-backed behavioral changes for long-term obesity management and overall health. The consensus of the medical community—including both researchers and healthcare providers—is that lifestyle factors such as food, activity, sleep, and mindset are the foundation for any obesity treatment program that may include prescription medication and surgery.
7. What’s next?
It’s an exciting time in obesity management. The advances in medications are adding a valuable tool to the toolbox. They are also changing the narrative around the physiological underpinnings of obesity, which we hope will help fight weight bias and discrimination.
At WeightWatchers, we recognize that weight management isn’t one-size-fits-all. Our evidence-based program is the gold standard for behavioral weight management. At the same time, we understand that obesity is a complex disease with both biological and behavioral components. For many, medications are needed to address the biological drivers of obesity; together medication and healthy habits make a powerful long-term obesity treatment.
In the tradition of evolving our program alongside science, WeightWatchers recently acquired Sequence, a virtual medical weight-management clinic specializing in the treatment of obesity. WeightWatchers is now offering a range of behavioral, lifestyle, and clinical solutions that when combined can create pathways to manage costs, outcomes and access based on members' needs. To learn more about our weight health pathways, please contact us here.
For more information on the impact and opportunities tied to GLP-1 medications, check out my recent conversation with Dr. Natalie Walsh and Dr. Tatiana Ivan on the Inside Medicine with Private Medical podcast.
About the Author
Michelle Cardel, Ph.D, M.S., R.D., WeightWatchers Senior Director, Global Clinical Research and Nutrition, is an obesity and nutrition scientist and registered dietitian with a focus on the development and implementation of evidence-based healthy lifestyle strategies. She serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine and an Associate Director for the University’s Center for Integrative Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease. She has authored more than 100 scientific publications and received numerous honors, including the Excellence in Emerging Outcomes Research award from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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