A new class of ‘game-changer’ weight-loss drugs exploded in popularity in 2022, and supply can’t keep up
- Medicines such as semaglutide and tirzepatid are becoming increasingly popular as weight loss treatments.
- Originally used to treat diabetes, the drugs help moderate appetite and reduce cravings.
A new category of weight loss drugs, repurposed from diabetes management, is seriously changing how we think about and approach weight management.
In 2021, the drug semaglutide, called a “game changer” in the industry, officially received FDA approval to be prescribed for weight loss. By 2022, it has increased in popularity, become more widespread and spurred more research. In the past year, another promising drug has also been seeking approval as a weight loss treatment.
Here’s what we know about the drugs, from their effectiveness to side effects.
Semaglutide became so popular that it led to shortages
Semaglutide, originally used to treat diabetes, was FDA-approved for weight loss in 2021 and is sold under the brand names Wegovy and Ozempic.
The medicine acts on a specific hormone called GLP-1 that controls appetite, so that patients taking the drug feel more full. It also helps with the production of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Research suggests it can help patients lose significant weight and keep it off if they continue to take the drug.
A similar drug, liraglutide, was FDA-approved for weight loss in 2014 – the main difference with semaglutide is that it is longer, administered weekly instead of daily injections, and evidence suggests it leads to more weight loss.
High demand for semaglutide led to a shortage at the end of 2021, which has continued into this year, according to the FDA.
In the summer of 2022, semaglutide shortages in Australia were linked to a TikTok trend with users sharing weight loss experiences with the drug, sometimes misleadingly.
Elon Musk added to the media buzz by announcing on Twitter that he had taken it for weight loss. Combined with rumors that the drug was the latest Hollywood weight-loss hack, experts expressed concern that all the hype could make the drug harder to access for patients who need it, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Patients say it helps reduce cravings for junk food and alcohol
One factor in semaglutide’s popularity has been eye-popping anecdotes from patients who said it made them stop craving foods like bacon and sugary treats.
The medicine makes it easier to practice moderation and portion control, according to patients who take it. The drug works in part by changing the brain’s reward center, disrupting the allure of hyperpalatable foods high in salt, fat and sugar.
As a result, it has also shown potential to curb other types of addiction – some patients have found that it reduces their desire to drink alcohol and helps them cut back on drinking.
Tirzepatide has promising results but is not yet approved for weight loss
In June 2022, a similar diabetes drug called tirzepatid made headlines after research showed people who took it lost 20% of their body weight in 16 months, Rachel Hosie of Insider reported.
It works similarly to semaglutide, but has not yet received FDA approval for weight loss.
“We expect it will be approved for treatment of obesity,” endocrinologist and obesity medicine specialist Dr. Scott Isaacs previously told Insider, though it’s not clear how soon.
Patients can still access the drug, as it is approved for diabetes, so doctors can prescribe it for obesity if they think it will help.
Tirzepatide grew in popularity in 2022, in part because of a rebate that made the drug less expensive, but long-term access is a concern because insurance rarely covers weight-loss drugs, Isaacs said.
Medicines for weight loss are considered safe, but can cause side effects such as nausea
Both semaglutide and tirzepatid work for weight loss by reducing appetite, making patients less likely to overeat. But they can also cause unpleasant symptoms, including nausea and diarrhea.
In some cases, the hunger-suppressing effects can make it difficult for people to enjoy food, causing disgust or indigestion when they try to eat previously beloved treats like chocolate, fried chicken or even coffee, Insider’s Anna Medaris previously reported.
More research is needed to assess the long-term effects of the drugs, but current evidence suggests they can be used safely and effectively to treat patients, Dr. W. Scott Butsch, director of obesity medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, told Insider.