The Western world is obsessed with finding the next “miracle” weight loss solution. Is semaglutide (Wegovy), the newest weight loss medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the answer?
Weight and how we feel about our bodies are incredibly complex issues. With models and advertising media constantly reminding us that “thin is in,” it is no surprise that many men and women worldwide are searching for ways to slim down and lose excess fat.
Wanting to lose weight has become such a prolific desire worldwide that a recent study of people from 30 countries found that up to 45% of people report trying to lose weight at any given time.¹
Despite a seemingly universal interest in losing and controlling weight, obesity rates are at an all-time high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 42% of American adults aged 20 and over are diagnosed with obesity, which means having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater.²
Weight loss is a complicated and incredibly personal experience. As a health metric dramatically impacted by various factors, including genetics, place of living, lifestyle, and more, the idea of “simply losing weight” is often not so simple.
Because of this complexity, it is incredibly common for people to turn to quick-fix diets and “miracle” weight loss solutions to lose weight as fast as possible — even if these options are not the best fit for their needs.
But is Wegovy, the latest FDA-approved weight loss medication, a different story?
Wegovy (generic name: semaglutide) is a newly FDA-approved prescription weight loss medication. As the first weight loss drug accepted by the FDA since 2014, Wegovy officially hit the markets as a treatment option for chronic weight management in 2021.³
Wegovy is an injectable medication given weekly for people with an elevated BMI. In most cases, patients begin on a lower dose and then gradually, over multiple months, work their way up to the correct dosage. This is done to avoid complications and reduce the risk of experiencing unpleasant symptoms.
As a semaglutide medication, Wegovy is the first of a new generation of hormonal weight loss drugs. Capable of interacting with essential receptors within the gastrointestinal tract, semaglutide medications help a person lose weight by causing the following responses throughout the body:⁴
Decreasing appetite and food cravings
Increasing the feeling of fullness after a meal
Decreasing the gastric emptying time
Increasing insulin production and secretion
Decreasing glucose release from the liver
Increasing glucose uptake into the muscles
To become FDA-approved, medications must undergo extensive testing and clinical trials to prove their safety and efficacy. And while this process can take multiple years to complete, a large amount of research during this time offers valuable insights into possible side effects, uses, and complications of a particular drug.
As part of its FDA approval process, Wegovy was involved in four clinical trials, each of which lasted for 68 weeks (15 months) to complete. Throughout these studies, over 2600 participants received regular Wegovy dosages (and over 1600 people received a placebo), resulting in the following findings.⁵ ⁶
On average, throughout the 68-week trials, the participants who received Wegovy lost an average of 14.9% of their baseline body weight, compared to only a 2.4% loss in the control group.
Additionally, over 86% of participants who took Wegovy lost 5% of their baseline body mass during this trial, while only 31.5% of the control group met this same metric.
Throughout the trial, participants who received weekly Wegovy experienced a reduction in cardiometabolic risk factors while also reporting improvements in their overall physical functioning and health. These findings were more significant in the Wegovy group compared to the placebo group, who, on average, lost less weight throughout the trial.
While on Wegovy, the average person throughout this trial lost nearly 34 lbs over the 68-week period. Comparatively, the placebo control group lost an average of 5 lbs over the same period.
So, with these profound and seemingly mostly positive clinical findings, it can be easy to conclude that starting Wegovy is necessary for your health and weight loss journey. As it turns out, however, it isn’t a safe choice for everyone.
Depending on your unique medical and family history, Wegovy may not be a safe or effective choice for your needs. Before starting Wegovy, ask your healthcare provider about the associated risks if you have any of the following health conditions:⁷
A personal or family history of thyroid cancer (medullary thyroid carcinoma or multiple endocrine neoplasia syndrome type 2)
Any history of allergic reactions to semaglutide medications or other injectable medications
Past kidney, gallbladder, or pancreas infections, injuries, or issues
A history of vision changes due to a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes
Planning to become or currently pregnant
Wegovy is unsafe to take while pregnant and should be stopped at least two months before becoming pregnant. This medication can also be passed from parent to baby via breast milk and is unsafe to take while breastfeeding.
Like any other medication, taking Wegovy is not without risks and potential side effects. Commonly impacted by a person’s unique health status and genetics, some of the more common and mild symptoms of Wegovy include:⁸
Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
Abdominal pain and bloating
Increased flatulence, burping, and gas production
Fatigue and dizziness
In most cases, the above-mentioned mild symptoms can be monitored and managed with changes in the dosage of medication given. However, some people’s symptoms continue to worsen if they stay on Wegovy.
Examples of more severe (and less common) side effects of Wegovy include:⁸
The development of a rash
Swelling of the eyes, mouth, tongue, or throat
Increased resting heart rate
Vision changes (often in patients living with type II diabetes)
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
Mood changes, including increased feelings of depression
For a tiny subsection of patients on Wegovy, the medication can cause various severe health complications. Patients who experience symptoms of the following complications should immediately speak with their primary care provider for additional support about stopping Wegovy.
Examples of serious health complications from taking Wegovy include increased risks of developing the following:⁸
Extensive research has proven that taking Wegovy increases a person’s risk of developing thyroid cancer. Because of this, Wegovy comes with a boxed warning from the FDA — the most severe health warning the administration uses to label medications, designed to alert prescribers to the potential risks.
Due to this potential risk factor, Wegovy is not recommended for patients with or who have a family history of thyroid cancer.
The gallbladder is responsible for storing and releasing bile from the liver into the intestines to break down food. While on Wegovy, some patients experienced a higher risk of developing gallstones (calcifications of bile in the gallbladder that can block the normal release of bile). In some cases, gallstones can require emergency surgery to remove.
As the organ primarily responsible for releasing digestive enzymes, the pancreas is heavily involved in losing weight. In some cases, patients on Wegovy can develop pancreatitis (inflammation and painful damage to the pancreas due to early activation of digestive enzymes within the pancreas) due to taking the medication.
Early warning signs of pancreatitis include sudden and severe pain in the abdomen and back that does not go away.
In severe cases of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea from taking Wegovy, it is possible for a person to become dehydrated. If the patient is already living with pre-diagnosed kidney issues, Wegovy-induced dehydration can result in short-term kidney injury and failure in severe cases.
If all of this information makes you think about looking into Wegovy, the next best step is to talk to your primary care physician about the benefits and risks of starting weight loss medication.
While every person’s pros and cons will look a little different, here are a few examples of things to discuss with your doctor before starting Wegovy for weight loss:
The benefits of starting weight loss medication include:
Research indicates that people who take weight loss medications are likely to lose 10% or more of their starting baseline weight as part of the treatment. Sustained weight loss can help reduce your risk of developing weight-related comorbidities.⁹
Weight loss medications can be safely paired with lifestyle changes for increased results. Eating a low-calorie diet and exercising regularly while taking these medications help improve your overall health.
When taken for a prolonged period of time, weight loss medications can help you maintain weight loss. Observing long-term weight loss success can benefit not only your physical but also your mental and emotional health.
The potential risks of starting weight loss medication include:
As we explored in this article, every weight loss medication has associated side effects. Depending on your personal medical history, genetics, and a wide variety of other factors, you may be at an elevated risk of experiencing severe complications or side effects from taking weight loss medications.
Depending on your medical or family history, you may not be a candidate for weight loss medications in the first place. When deciding whether or not to start weight loss treatment, talk to a qualified healthcare professional to ensure that the option you choose is right for you.
No weight loss medication can be taken forever. After the duration of the treatment, weight loss medications must be stopped, an event that can cause people to regain the weight lost. Because of this, using weight loss medications in conjunction with healthier lifestyle habits is essential for long-term and sustainable results.
It is important for you to remember that weight loss medication does NOT need to be a part of your weight loss journey. There are plenty of other less risky and more lifestyle-based approaches to take that can yield the results you are looking for.
If you are interested in losing weight, examples of sustainable lifestyle changes that you can add to your daily routine include:¹⁰
Participating in low-impact daily exercises like walking, swimming, or gardening
Adapting your diet to contain more fruits and vegetables and less processed, high-calorie food
Prioritizing rest and recovery, ensuring that you are getting enough quality sleep every night
Practicing meditation and mindful eating to better connect your mind and body throughout our weight loss journey
Focusing on the adventure rather than the destination
Remember, no weight loss journey is linear. How quickly you can get back on track after a minor slip in your routine will help you move toward your goals faster.
So, as it turns out, Wegovy is not a miracle weight loss drug after all — and that is okay!
Just like any other medication, Wegovy offers plenty of benefits (mixed in with some side effects and risks). Determining if this medication is right for you will be done based on various factors, from your medical history and personal risk tolerance to the advice and support of your doctor.
Do your research, and don’t be afraid to ask questions before starting any new weight loss medication. Your safety should always be a top priority.
The information provided is designed to support, not replace, the relationship between a patient/site visitor and their existing healthcare professional(s).
Adult obesity facts | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
FDA approves new drug treatment for chronic weight management, first since 2014 | U.S, Food and Drug Association
How does wegovy work for weight loss? | Drugs.com
Highlights of prescribing information | Access data
Lose weight and keep it off | Wagovy
Common side effects of wegovy® | Wagovy
Interested in losing weight? | U.S Department of Agriculture
Claire Bonneau is a medical writer and certified trauma operating room nurse.
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