The popularity of new anti-obesity medications like the groundbreaking GLP-1 receptor agonist, Wegovy, shows no signs of slowing. As an obesity medicine specialist, I’m not surprised: people want to lose weight. For many individuals who’ve been trying to lose weight for years or even decades and constantly gain their weight back, GLP-1 receptor agonists such as semaglutide (Wegovy, Ozempic and Rybelsus) and tirzepatide (Mounjaro in the diabetes formulation; soon to receive FDA approval for obesity treatment under a different brand name) offer new hope that something might finally work.
Thanks to viral social media posts and constant press coverage, Ozempic and Wegovy have become almost household names, and many primary care providers face questions — some based on social media misinformation — from patients eager to give these new medications a try. The following are common questions I’m asked, and suggested context to frame a response.
- “Can you write me a prescription for Wegovy?”
Patients should understand that it’s not just a matter of writing a prescription. Obesity is a complex, chronic disease, and many interrelated factors, including genetics, environment, sleep patterns, stress, medications, hormonal imbalances, and other health conditions, need to be considered to determine the best treatment. Wegovy isn’t suitable for everyone who has obesity; there may be other, more appropriate medications. It’s also important to provide education and ongoing support for sustainable dietary, physical activity, and behavior changes. Lifestyle interventions are rarely sufficient on their own, but they’re always essential components of any effective weight management plan. A successful weight loss strategy needs to address all these factors comprehensively and in a personalized way as part of a long-term care plan. There’s no quick fix for obesity.
- “I don’t want to resort to medication. It feels like cheating. Why won’t diet and exercise work for me?”
Most people with obesity cannot lose significant weight and keep it off long-term with lifestyle changes alone. This is because weight loss triggers the body’s physiological “anti-starvation” mechanisms, leading to increased hunger and cravings and a lower metabolic rate. With obesity, the area around the hypothalamus (the energy regulatory center in the brain) becomes inflamed, interfering with feedback signals from the gut and fat cells. Anti-obesity medications address these underlying dysregulated hormonal and metabolic pathways. Semaglutide, for example, mimics the GLP-1 hormone, which helps people feel full sooner after eating and slows the passage of food through the gastrointestinal tract. It targets areas of the brain that control appetite and influence eating decisions. Other anti-obesity medications work differently, but they all help the body overcome its anti-starvation responses to enable weight loss and weight maintenance.
- “Are the horror stories about Ozempic’s side effects — abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and vomiting — typical? I don’t want to feel miserable.”
These are known adverse events associated with semaglutide, and it’s to be expected that as more and more people take these medications, we hear more about the side effects, including the rare ones. Symptoms may be worse when the medication is not used appropriately — if the dose is too high or it’s escalated too quickly, if the medication is prescribed without adequate screening (for example, to identify people who have risk factors for these symptoms), or if patients aren’t given the necessary education and support (dietary and behavioral modifications can minimize symptoms). When best practices are followed, patients generally tolerate semaglutide well.
There’s a risk-benefit calculation when prescribing any medication, of course, but for people with a high BMI, who face elevated risk of many serious weight-related conditions, the benefits may outweigh the risks.
- “What about aesthetic changes? I’ve heard about ‘Ozempic face.’ Will my skin get saggy?”
Loose skin is common with major weight loss, regardless of how it’s achieved, especially if the weight is lost rapidly. But this aftereffect is highly variable, with age, diet, and genetics among the factors that play a role. Some people lose 100 pounds and have no loose skin, and others develop a significant amount of loose skin after losing much less weight.
It’s important to note that weight reduction involves the loss of muscle as well as fat, so I always recommend and regularly encourage patients to incorporate strength training into their weight management program in order to maintain as much lean body mass as possible.
- “How long will I need to take Wegovy?”
Patients should expect to take the medication for the foreseeable future. Obesity is a chronic disease., We don’t counsel patients with other chronic illnesses about weaning medications once their condition is controlled. When a person with diabetes stops taking an antidiabetic medication, we expect blood sugar to increase. And when someone with high blood pressure stops taking an antihypertensive medication, we expect blood pressure to rise. Obesity is the same. The FDA has approved these medications for long-term use for this reason. Weight gain isn’t just possible after stopping an anti-obesity medication discontinuation, it’s expected.
- “Why doesn’t my insurance cover Wegovy?”
For years, weight loss was considered strictly “cosmetic,” and obesity was attributed to individuals’ poor lifestyle choices. Today, most industry players — including insurers — recognize that obesity is a complex, chronic disease. But the new anti-obesity medications are extremely costly, especially considering the huge number of potential users (more than 42% of U.S. adults have obesity).
Access needs to improve, and it needs to improve dramatically, but simply handing out GLP-1 prescriptions left and right isn’t the answer either.
A comprehensive approach to weight management can improve health outcomes for more than 200 other conditions that obesity causes or worsens, from high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes to sleep apnea and certain types of cancer. It makes more sense — in terms of both patient health and economics — to treat the underlying obesity directly rather than waiting for these preventable obesity-related diseases to develop.
Now that we have a critical mass of patients taking these new, highly effective medications, we will have more comprehensive data demonstrating the mortality benefits of anti-obesity medications. For example, results from Novo Nordisk’s landmark SELECT trial, a five-year cardiovascular outcomes trial of Wegovy compared to placebo in individuals with overweight or obesity, recently found that semaglutide reduced the risk of major adverse cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular deaths) by 20 percent. With this evidence from the SELECT trial, improved insurance coverage should be next.
- “If my insurance doesn’t cover semaglutide, are there alternatives?”
Semaglutide is an important part of our anti-obesity armamentarium, but we don’t automatically prescribe it to everyone who qualifies. Other options include Contrave, Saxenda, and Qsymia, for example. Any anti-obesity medication needs to be selected in the context of a comprehensive individualized evaluation and prescribed as part of a personalized treatment plan. Depending on a patient’s specific situation and risk factors, I prescribe many medications that are considerably less expensive than semaglutide, and individuals on these medications are still able to lose a significant amount of weight. Everyone’s situation is different, and individuals respond to different medications in different ways. Obesity is not a simple disease, and there’s no one medication that’s right for everyone.
- “What about supplements like berberine? Some people are calling it ‘nature’s Ozempic.’ Is it worth trying?”
I caution my patients about dietary supplements for weight management because we don’t have high-quality evidence demonstrating efficacy. Worse, the lack of regulatory oversight in the supplement market makes it challenging to know exactly what’s contained in any given product. The actual amount of berberine could be different from what’s claimed, and other undisclosed ingredients could be included as well. For example, some dietary supplements have been shown to contain amphetamines or anti-obesity medications that have been withdrawn from the market.
- “What about compounded semaglutide? Is it safe?”
When patients present to me on compounded semaglutide, I recommend that they stop. As with dietary supplements, these drugs are not regulated. We have no idea what the products contain, what the actual dose of the active ingredient is, or whether the product has contaminants. The FDA has issued a warning about compounded semaglutide.
- “I’m having surgery next month. Is it true that I need to suspend my Wegovy?”
Because GLP-1 receptor agonists are associated with increased risk of nausea, vomiting, and delayed gastric emptying, the American Society of Anesthesiologists recently issued guidance suggesting that individuals who take these medications daily should stop the medication the day of the surgery, or, if they take them weekly, hold the dose the week before surgery. People who are taking these medications for diabetes in addition to weight management may need to consult with their endocrinologist to identify an alternative diabetes medication to bridge the gap.
Wegovy and the other anti-obesity medications in the pipeline that are even more promising are and will be extremely important agents in our armamentarium, but successful weight management requires more than just one medication in isolation. Media coverage of these new medications sometimes creates the impression that obesity is a simple disease that can be treated with a one-size-fits-all, short-term approach. In reality, however, obesity is, a complex, multifactorial, relapsing chronic disease, and treating it requires a comprehensive evaluation and a customized treatment plan with education and long-term support.