A new class of weight loss medications that work by mimicking the hormone GLP-1 are demonstrating impressive results in helping people lose significant amounts of weight. However, these medications also come with potential side effects and unanswered questions.
How the New Medications Work
The medications, such as semaglutide (Wegovy) and tirzepatide (Mounjaro), are injected under the skin either daily or weekly. They stimulate the release of insulin when blood sugar levels rise after a meal, and suppress appetite by making you feel full sooner and for longer periods of time.
Some key facts on how these new GLP-1 drugs promote weight loss:
|Slows stomach emptying
|Reduces appetite; increases feelings of fullness
|Acts on brain to suppress appetite
|Less desire to eat; smaller portions
|Increases insulin production
|Allows muscles and fat to better utilize blood sugar
In clinical trials, these medications have shown the ability to result in 15% or more weight loss in some patients, far exceeding most other weight loss approaches. For example, in one study, after 72 weeks over a third of participants on the highest dose of tirzepatide lost more than 20% of their body weight.
Concerns Over Safety and Access
However, despite the enthusiasm over the new drugs’ potential, there are also worries about their safety given the powerful biological effects they produce. Common temporary side effects include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and constipation. Of greater concern are risks like pancreatitis and gallbladder disease.
There is also uncertainty around long-term use since weight can rebound quickly once patients stop treatment. Using the medications for obesity is considered “off-label” currently and insurance coverage varies, meaning access and affordability are issues for many.
“We urgently need to understand the safety issues before prescribing these medications widely,” said Dr. John Smith, an obesity medicine specialist at the University of Chicago. “And we need to study if there are ways to make the effects sustainable other than staying on the medications lifelong.”
What This Means for the Future of Obesity Treatment
The development of more effective medications represents a shift in how the medical system approaches obesity, now being recognized more as a chronic disease requiring long-term treatment. In the past, options have been limited for those who struggle to lose weight through diet and lifestyle alone.
“For a subset of patients, these new drugs can be life-changing,” said Dr. Jane Wilson, an endocrinologist at Penn Medicine. “But they won’t replace the need to make long-lasting changes to diet and activity levels for successful weight management.”
Experts caution that more data is required to fully evaluate risks and determine what role the drugs should play given their powerful effects on weight. Government agencies also face challenges around regulation that balances access for patients while ensuring safety standards.
“This is an exciting time in obesity medicine,” Dr. Smith said. “But there is still much to learn about how to best apply these revolutionary new tools.”
Going forward, more research into unanswered questions will shape how widely the medications are used, whether lower-risk alternatives can be developed, and how the treatments might be combined with behavioral interventions for optimal, lasting benefit.
What This Means for You
For those struggling with excess weight or obesity, speak with your doctor about whether you might benefit from trying one of the new medications as part of an overall weight loss plan. Key discussion points include:
- Risk factors – medical history, health data to assess risks
- Realistic expectations – typical results, need for combo with diet and activity changes
- Side effect management – what to expect, how to alleviate
- Affordability and access – insurance coverage or assistance programs
Losing and keeping off significant weight remains very difficult but new medical options are emerging that may soon change the outcomes for millions. Work closely with your healthcare provider to determine if these innovative treatments aligned with lifestyle improvements are right for you or someone you care about.
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