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Get the facts on medications for weight loss

A doctor talks to a woman who is seated on an exam table.

Dec. 21, 2023—There's a lot of buzz about the new GLP-1 (which stands for glucagon-like peptide 1) weight-loss drugs. You might be wondering if they're right for you. Research shows that these medications can help people lose weight. But they aren't for everyone.

Here's what you should know about these medicines, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and other experts.

What are GLP-1 drugs, and how do they work?

GLP-1 medications mimic the hormones that your intestines naturally produce when you eat. They affect your appetite and the way your body regulates its weight.

These medications are injected under the skin, either daily or weekly. They include:

  • Liraglutide (Saxenda).
  • Tirzepatide (Zepbound).
  • Semaglutide (Wegovy).

GLP-1 medications are also used to treat type 2 diabetes. For example, semaglutide is approved to treat diabetes as an injectable medicine (Ozempic) or as a pill (Rybelsus).

There are no generic versions of GLP-1 medications, and they're only available by prescription.

Do they work?

Results vary. But, on average, adults lose between 3% and 12% of their starting weight after a year of taking the medication.

GLP-1 drugs are most effective when combined with lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise.

Who might benefit from GLP-1 weight-loss medications?

People with a body mass index (BMI) above 30 who haven't been able to lose weight with lifestyle changes may be good candidates for weight-loss medications. Those with a BMI over 27 combined with other health issues, like high blood pressure and diabetes, could also benefit. The best way to know if you could benefit is by having a conversation with your healthcare provider.

What are the risks?

The side effects of weight-loss drugs can sometimes outweigh the benefits. Common issues include diarrhea, constipation, nausea and stomach pain. More serious side effects are also possible, including an increased chance of pancreatitis.

So far, there is no data on long-term use of these medications. The longest-running clinical study was only four years in duration.

What are the benefits?

For people with obesity, losing even a small amount of weight can lead to big health benefits. With a 5% or greater weight loss, people often see improvements in their:

  • Blood sugar.
  • Blood pressure.
  • Cholesterol levels.

Weight loss can also improve joint pain and sleep apnea.

Do you need to take them forever?

Obesity is a chronic disease. You're likely to regain some of the weight you lost if you stop taking the medication. So if you're taking a medication that's helped you lose weight and you're not having side effects, your healthcare provider may recommend staying on the drug long term. If the medicine doesn't help you lose at least 5% of your body weight within three months, it may not make sense to keep taking it.

Talk to your doctor

Your healthcare provider can help you weigh your weight-loss options, including helping you understand the risks and benefits of GLP-1 medicines and how they might affect you. If you're trying to lose weight, don't go it alone. Your healthcare team can help.


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