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They could be a game changer in treating obesity and improving your health.

You’re eating right, exercising and getting plenty of sleep. In short, you’re doing everything right to live a healthy life — but you’d be doing even better if you could shed a few pounds. The answer could be adding medications to your diet and exercise plans.

“Weight loss drugs can be an excellent tool when used as part of a comprehensive plan,” says Christopher Still, DO, director of Geisinger’s Center for Nutrition and Weight Management. “They’re especially helpful for people who haven’t seen results with diet and exercise alone.” 

But before you call your doctor asking for a script, know that these drugs aren’t for everyone. 

What medications are available?

Right now, there are six FDA-approved prescription medications for weight loss. Some work by reducing fat absorption while others target cravings and appetite.

These include:

  • Liraglutide (Saxenda®)
  • Orlistat (Xenical®)
  • Phentermine-topiramate (Qsymia®)
  • Naltrexone-bupropion (Contrave®)
  • Setmelanotide (IMCIVREE®)
  • Semaglutide (Wegovy®)

Each of these medications can be highly effective in reducing weight, but newer ones like semaglutide are what Dr. Still calls “a game changer” for cardiometabolic health.

“With the older medications, we typically saw about an 8% to 10% reduction in weight, but semaglutide averages about 16% weight loss in clinical trials,” Dr. Still explains. “For comparison, diet and exercise commonly max out at about 7%.”

Semaglutide is a once-weekly injectable that works by mimicking a naturally occurring hormone that regulates your appetite and helps you feel full. It’s available in two doses under two brand names: Wegovy and Ozempic®. While Wegovy (the higher dose) is approved for obesity, Ozempic is specifically FDA-approved for diabetes. 

“Both medications have made headlines and swept social media feeds due to their effectiveness,” says Dr. Still. “But it’s important to remember they're meant to be used for medical — not cosmetic — reasons.” 

Who are weight loss medications for?

There are certain criteria you need to meet before getting a prescription:

  • A body mass index (BMI) of 30+
  • Or a BMI of 27+ and at least one weight-related condition like sleep apnea, diabetes or high cholesterol

Your BMI is a screening tool used to determine your ideal weight. A BMI of 25 to 29 is considered overweight, and anything above 30 is considered obese. 

“There’s this common misconception that obesity is simply a lack of willpower, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” explains Dr. Still. “Obesity is caused by biological, hormonal and metabolic factors outside our control, and it’s a chronic condition just like diabetes or high blood pressure.”

Excess weight can lead to diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease, arthritis and COVID-19 complications, but even small changes can make a big difference in your health.

“You don’t need to lose a lot of weight to have an impact,” says Dr. Still. “Studies have shown taking off as little as 10% can significantly improve your health and reduce your risk of conditions like diabetes, fatty liver disease and cancer.”

What happens when you stop taking these medications?

Once you stop, your appetite will increase as your body tries to get back to your previous weight.

“People typically regain the weight in about a year,” explains Dr. Still. “But that shouldn’t be seen as a personal failure. It’s the same as if someone with diabetes stops taking their insulin and their blood sugar rises.”

Because of this, these medications are a long-term solution and not a quick fix. Incorporating healthy choices like eating well and exercising regularly can help set yourself up for success. 

One piece of the puzzle

Weight loss medications are best used as part of a comprehensive program tailored to your needs. This might include lifestyle changes, medication, bariatric surgery or a combination of all three.

“At Geisinger, our weight management team includes obesity medicine specialists, dietitians, bariatric surgeons, behavioral specialists and exercise physiologists,” says Dr. Still. “Together, we guide patients through each step of their personal weight loss journey.”

If you’re having trouble losing weight on your own, talk to your doctor about your goals. They can help you determine the plan that best suits your needs.

“Treating obesity isn’t about trying to look a certain way,” explains Dr. Still. “It’s about doing what’s best for your health and managing your medical conditions.”

Next steps: 

Learn about nutrition and weight management support
Find out if you’re a candidate for bariatric surgery
Does eating late at night cause weight gain?

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