For the media

Rising use of diabetes drugs for weight loss

By The Health News Team | April 7, 2023
Sad woman looking out a window

A drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes has exploded in popularity recently due to one of its side effects: weight loss. Ozempic® is one of several diabetes and weight-management medications that has sparked the latest weight-loss craze. But the sudden surge in demand combined with global supply constraints has left some diabetic patients unable to get the medication they need.

Ozempic, a brand-name for semaglutide, is an injectable prescription medication that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017 to treat Type 2 diabetes. The weight loss side effect was a “happy accident” discovery. In 2021, the FDA approved Wegovy® — which contains a higher dose of semaglutide — for adults with obesity or those who are overweight and have at least one weight-related condition, such as high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

According to Dr. Abisola Olulade, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, semaglutide belongs to a class of drugs called GLP-1 receptor agonists. “It essentially mimics the effects of a hormone in the body called GLP-1 and tells the body to release insulin, which leads to decreased blood sugar levels after a meal,” she says.

Semaglutide has grown popular for the effect it has on patients' appetites. Medications that enhance the activity of the GLP-1 hormone can make you feel satisfied and less hungry, which typically leads to decreased food intake.

But these medications aren’t intended for cosmetic weight loss or those hoping to shed a few pounds before summer. “Ozempic is approved by the FDA for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, but not for weight loss,” Dr. Olulade explains.

A rise in off-label use

Health care providers may, however, prescribe the medication for weight reduction even if it isn’t included on the label. A medication used for reasons other than what the FDA approved it for is known as off-label usage. The rise in people using Ozempic off-label may be exacerbating the shortage, leaving patients who require it for medical treatment purposes unable to access it.

Like all medications, both drugs come with potential side effects. Gastrointestinal side effects, including upset stomach and nausea are common. There are even more serious side effects that can occur, including pancreatitis, gallbladder issues and kidney issues.

Also, during animal studies, the drug led to the development of a particular form of thyroid cancer in rats and mice. However, it is not known if it can similarly cause thyroid cancer in humans. “All medications have potential side effects and taking them comes with some level of risk,” Dr. Olulade says.

It's important to note that semaglutide-based medicine is not a silver bullet. If your weight is already in a healthy range, it’s not a good idea to take a medication to become thinner, Dr. Olulade says.

“Weight is only one aspect of your health — not the whole picture,” says Dr. Olulade. “A well-thought-out, comprehensive approach should be taken, with lifestyle changes like healthy eating patterns and regular exercise incorporated to achieve weight loss goals.”

Learn more about nutrition; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

You might also like:

Get the best of Sharp Health News in your inbox

Our weekly email brings you the latest health tips, recipes and stories.