Release Date: June 16, 2023
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Ozempic, berberine and Wegovy are all the rage. Jenny Craig closed in May after four decades in business. Weight Watchers (now WW), meanwhile, recently purchased the telehealth and weight loss platform Sequence.
There’s a lot happening in the weight loss industry right now, and some of it has the potential to bring much-needed change for the roughly 42% of Americans battling obesity.
“I think this is a very important moment for the field of weight management and hopefully is the moment that a subset of individuals get the treatment that they need but haven’t been able to get up to this point,” says Katherine Balantekin, PhD, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences in the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.
The diabetes prescription drug Ozempic has recently become coveted — especially among celebrities — for its effectiveness as a weight loss drug. Another semaglutide injection, marketed as Wegovy, has also become increasingly popular, as has tirzepatide, which is sold under the brand name Mounjaro.
These evidence-based medications are “fantastic additions to our obesity treatment toolbox,” says Balantekin, who studies eating behavior in people with obesity or who have an eating disorder, as well as childhood obesity and parental influences on eating behaviors.
But, she adds, “It is critical that patients are overseen by physicians to monitor for adverse side effects and that patients are routinely screened for eating disorders.”
Access to care is also critical. “We do not have enough supply for all those interested, these anti-obesity medications are not routinely covered by insurance yet,” Balantekin says.
Patients and prescribers should also view these medications as spokes in a wheel of treatment for obesity and overweight, not the sole solution.
“I believe these medications are best used as adjuncts to behavioral obesity management to enhance treatment responses in certain individuals. They are helpful for addressing the biological causes of obesity. For example, we all differ in our appetitive traits, and for some of us, food is very powerful, making it very hard to effectively change our eating behaviors,” Balantekin says.
“These medications help drown out this ‘food noise,’ allowing us to focus on engaging in healthy habits learned as part of behavioral obesity management.”
Last year, Balantekin co-authored a commentary in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in which researchers urged health care practitioners to ditch what they called an outdated approach to treating overweight and obese and instead strive to improve access to compassionate, evidence-based and patient-centered care in order to fight weight stigma and end diet culture. In short, the emphasis should be on health, not weight.
While Ozempic and similar drugs are garnering headlines daily, especially as Hollywood celebrities extol the drugs’ virtues or shortcomings, Balantekin says these medications are not a fad.
“Scientists have been working on these medications for many years,” she says. “I think that certain companies, like WW, are rooted in the science, and thus change as our evidence changes. As such, it makes sense that these companies need to grow — for example, WW acquiring Sequence — when new treatment components come on the market, like the anti-obesity medications.”
But then there’s berberine, a dietary supplement extracted from plants and which has become a darling of some TikTok users who’ve dubbed it “nature’s Ozempic.” Is it really effective, though, in inducing weight loss?
Balantekin cautions against taking any supplements for weight loss because they are not well regulated. “Moreover, unlike the anti-obesity medications, we do not have data supporting berberine’s efficacy.”