Since time immemorial, there has always been a public fascination with diet culture. In the past years, this has led to the introduction of fad diets like the Master Cleanse and the Cabbage Soup trend. However, while the above rely mainly on food deprivation, social media and celebrity influence have given rise to a new means to lose weight that involves drugs regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Called medical weight loss, this approach has gotten so popular recently that large-scale pharma has made billions in profit. In fact, Novo Nordisk and Ozempic just reported massive success in the form of a $500 billion market valuation thanks to their popularity in the obesity management field. This supports a 2023 KFF poll that found almost 50% of all adult participants were interested in taking weight loss medications.
That said, while headlines may focus on the quick and significant results that medical weight loss offers, there is much more to this intervention. If you’re a physical therapist (PT) who is interested or has clients who are, read on.
Understanding what medical weight loss really is
Accessibility and Eligibility
Contrary to how mainstream media like to portray medical weight loss as akin to simply purchasing over-the-counter medicines, this approach is dependent on the involvement of healthcare experts. A team of doctors is at the helm of medical weight loss, and it is through their guidance that patients are given tailored plans that involve the use of certain drugs and the adoption of lifestyle changes. Without a doctor’s approval, a patient cannot obtain medical weight loss drugs. This is crucial to ensure a patient’s safety and that supply can meet demand.
Speaking of patients, not everyone can be eligible for medical weight loss. Because this intervention does impact the body on a biological level, this is only considered for those who have not found success with other, more traditional weight loss methods and who need to lose weight for health purposes. As such, medical weight loss patients have consistently logged a BMI within the obesity range. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this means having a BMI of over 30, or close to it, with comorbidities that can worsen excess weight.
Medications and Efficacy
Although many online confuse these medications for generic diet supplements, they differ significantly. The FDA does not regulate the latter, and it usually comes in forms like pills, tablets, or even shakes. More often than not, these diet supplements claim to encourage weight loss by boosting the metabolism, although given their lack of adherence to FDA regulations, results are not certain.
Medical weight loss medication, on the other hand, has passed rigorous scientific trials to ensure efficacy. To illustrate, while many like to compare famous brands like Saxenda vs Wegovy, they're undeniably better and safer than unregulated diet supplements because they target biological factors that impact weight. Being clinically tested GLP-1 agonists, they stimulate the brain's satiety receptors, which influence appetite and hunger. As a result, instead of just claiming to "flush out" fat, these medications actually prevent overeating. Over time, this can result in a person losing up to 20% of their initial weight.
Long Term Sustainability
Finally, although many may think that medical weight loss drugs can be a forever solution to keeping off the extra pounds, it is not. While they are intended for chronic management, a patient’s needs may change as their weight lowers. That said, it’s important not to gloss over the fact that as prescription medications, they cannot just be quit cold turkey. Doing so can result in side effects, including regaining weight.
While it may not be as enticing for those looking for a passive quick fix, medical weight loss works long-term because it also involves adopting other healthy habits. This includes eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, sleeping better, and reducing stress. In line with this, many doctors involved in medical weight loss work alongside other wellness practitioners such as dieticians and PTs. Through this multi-pronged approach, patients can learn how to navigate weight management sustainably. This includes healthy habits discussed in Dr. Sean Wells’ post, like opting for whole foods, finding ways to stay active, and being mindful of your intentions.
All in all, medical weight loss interventions are effective and worth looking into. However, it’s crucial that interested parties not overlook the facts in favor of the hype. As a PT, it is your responsibility to understand the intricacies of this approach so that you can also help guide your eligible clients to find a healthy way to address excess weight.