According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70% of the adult population of the United States is classified as being overweight or having obesity. Because these conditions are considered to be a major contributing factor for a vast number of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer, bringing that percentage down has been a focus area for some public health initiatives.
A recently approved prescription medication called Wegovy, also known as semaglutide, may offer another tool to help some people shed excess pounds. But what is it — and does this diet drug really work?
[READ: Is Weight Loss Even Important?]
What Is Wegovy?
Emily Rice, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, says that this new weight loss drug has a few functions that can lead to weight loss, including suppressing appetite and increasing satiety by mimicking a hormone called GLP-1.
In scientific speak, “Wegovy is a GLP-1 receptor agonist” explains Dr. Mir Ali, a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “GLP-1 is a hormone that’s secreted by the intestinal tract. It stimulates insulin secretion, which thereby lowers blood sugar levels.”
In healthy people, the pancreas secretes insulin when they eat food, which in turn helps process sugars in those foods and naturally keeps blood sugar at a healthy level.
Elevated blood sugar levels are a key symptom of prediabetes and diabetes, and lower blood sugar levels are associated with a healthy metabolism. People with Type 2 diabetes often have GLP-1 hormone levels that are lower than they should be. Wegovy increases those levels to help you lose weight.
GLP-1 slows down how quickly the stomach empties, so you’ll feel fuller for longer after eating. It also suppresses appetite by sending signals from the gut to the brain that you’re full and no longer hungry. This means people taking Wegovy tend to eat less, lowering overall calorie intake.
Who Should Take Wegovy?
If your doctor prescribes Wegovy, it’ll be delivered as a once-weekly injection, Rice says. “You’ll start at a lower dose and slowly increase as tolerated over several weeks.”
While the Food and Drug Administration has found this new medication to be safe and effective, it’s not for everyone.
Ali says the medication is indicated for adults who have obesity, which means you have a body mass index of 30 or greater. Adults who are classified as overweight, which means a BMI of 27 to 30, and have weight-related health issues such as diabetes or high blood pressure, are also eligible for this new medication. You can calculate your BMI via the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s online BMI calculator.
“Most people can expect to lose 10% to 15% of their body weight over a 12 to 18 month period,” Ali says. That’s a significant amount of weight, and research suggests that even a 5% decrease in body weight can lead to health improvements, with drops in the 10% to 15% range significantly decreasing your risk of developing weight-related health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, sleep apnea and kidney disease.
People with certain health conditions shouldn’t take Wegovy. Rice says that “patients with a personal or family history of medullary thyroid carcinoma or patients with a rare condition called multiple endocrine neoplasia syndrome type 2, also called MEN 2, shouldn’t take Wegovy. MEN 2 is a rare genetic disorder that can cause tumors in the thyroid gland, parathyroid glands and adrenal glands, which can trigger other conditions such as high blood pressure and kidney stones.
Wegovy Side Effects
While Wegovy’s testing results have been exciting, it’s important to note that, as with any medical treatment, there can be side effects to use. Ali says common side effects include:
— Stomach pains.
— Acid reflux and indigestion.
“More serious side effects such as pancreatitis, hypoglycemia, kidney failure and depression are much less common,” he adds.
Wegovy Is Just One Piece of the Weight Loss Puzzle
It’s also important to note that while simply using a medication seems like a super easy solution to weight loss, there’s more to Wegovy therapy than simply getting the injection. This is true of any of weight loss medication — they all should be viewed as one piece of the puzzle when trying to drop excess weight.
He also cautions that what works for one person might not help another, and “many weight loss medications may not be covered by your health insurance.” Newer medications that haven’t been licensed for generic manufacturing yet can be especially expensive.
If you’ve been struggling to lose weight or have or are at high risk for weight-related health conditions, talk with your doctor about if a weight loss medication might be helpful in your situation.
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