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What We’re Getting Wrong About Ozempic

Published: 7/24/23 1:08 pm
By Amelia Harnish

Semaglutide on plateOzempic has gained popularity as the new “miracle” diet drug that celebrities are using for weight loss. But has the mania over Ozempic obscured its original purpose as a diabetes treatment?

A new day, another set of Ozempic headlines. Whether you’re watching the news or scrolling TikTok – where #ozempic has more than 850 million views – you’re sure to hear about the “miracle” diabetes drug that (according to comedian Chelsea Handler, at least) everyone is using for weight loss.

You might think of Ozempic as a Hollywood drug because celebrities and those who can afford the high price tag have praised its use off-label for weight loss. Ozempic, Wegovy, and Rybelsus are brand-name versions of semaglutide, a medication FDA-approved to treat type 2 diabetes and obesity.

For people living with diabetes, the Ozempic craze has been anything but easy. Some may be frustrated about people who are using it for weight loss, but don't have diabetes, overweight, or obesity. There’s also the drug shortage, which for months has made it harder for many patients to get their medication.

And the dominant media narrative is still creating plenty of misconceptions about the drug’s uses – and who should take it. Even though people with obesity have the same right to the medication as people with diabetes do, there’s more stigma attached to taking it for weight loss reasons. 

Who should use Ozempic for weight loss?

Manufactured by Novo Nordisk, Ozempic has long been used to regulate blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. Because Ozempic isn’t specifically approved for weight loss (semaglutide in the form of Wegovy is), there’s a misconception that the medication is only for people with diabetes.

“Too many people think taking it for weight loss alone isn’t a valid reason to take it,” said Dr. Karl Nadolsky, an endocrinologist at Holland Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “It is not wrong to be using semaglutide for obesity.” 

In 2021, Wegovy was approved to treat overweight and obesity in those 12 years and up. This was a huge step forward in the weight management realm, especially considering barriers placed on obesity treatment by insurance companies. 

Like diabetes, obesity is a disease and has been classified as such by the American Medical Association since 2013. Yet obesity is more often seen as a personal failure of lifestyle, which isn’t a fair or accurate assessment, according to the science.

“There is a very strong genetic component to obesity,” Nadolsky said. There are rare single-gene mutations that directly cause obesity, but what’s more common is heterogeneous polygenic obesity, which refers to a cluster of genetic changes that predispose people to weight gain. 

Because our modern environment tends to promote conditions that encourage obesity – living among an abundance of caloric food, in less than walkable metropolitan areas, and leading pretty stressful lives – those of us with certain genetics are bound to gain weight. 

“It’s not that lifestyle doesn’t matter,” Nadolsky added. “It’s just that we are less in control of our lifestyle than we think we are.” 

We also know that obesity and diabetes risk are intimately related. “Type 2 diabetes is really a complex complication of obesity,” Nadolsky added. “We need to focus our efforts on treating that as the underlying root issue.” 

In other words, the more awareness there is that those struggling with obesity deserve treatment before they develop diabetes, the more diabetes we can prevent.

“Treating obesity will definitely prevent the development of many chronic complications – not just type 2 diabetes,” said Dr. Rocio Salas-Whalen, an endocrinologist and obesity specialist based in New York City. “Hypertension, high cholesterol, and osteoarthritis are a few. Obesity causes more than 30 cancers, so we can even prevent some cancers from happening by treating obesity.” 

Amid the mania over Ozempic as a celebrity weight loss sensation, these messages are often lost. And while some people may be using semaglutide in unhealthy ways or outside the approved indications, Salas-Whalen said people struggling with their weight have just as much of a right to the drug as those with diabetes do.

Learn more about diabetes and obesity treatments here:

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About the authors

Amelia Harnish is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Copake, NY. Her writing has appeared in New York Times Parenting, The Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, and Women's Health, among... Read the full bio »