At some point between trudging out another mile on the treadmill and willing yourself to choose carrot sticks over carrot cake, you’ve probably had that thought: Wouldn’t it be great if I could just take a pill and watch the pounds melt away?
You’re not alone. For years, plenty of women — and men — have sought out weight-loss drugs to speed up and simplify the process of dropping some pounds. Although some drugs have been pulled from shelves after high-profile failures and most doctors continue to recommend other methods to lose weight, the number of weight-loss drugs and people seeking them continues to grow.
Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an associate professor at Temple University School of Medicine and a physician with the Allegheny Health Network, says the reason for these trends is simple: “Obesity has become probably the most important public health problem in the United States."
Weight-loss drugs often become tools for persons who have made concerted efforts to lose weight through diet and exercise, but have had little success. Many people who fall into that group have other serious conditions related to obesity, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
As a rule of thumb, Itskowitz says weight-loss drugs are usually off the table for someone with a body mass index, or BMI, of less than 27 or greater than 40. But for people in between those body sizes, these drugs can be part of a broader solution.
Drugs pulled off the market several years ago, including Fen-phen, were found to have some scary side effects related to heart problems. Today’s weight-loss drugs work differently and come with side effects of their own, but they are considered less substantial. Most focus on the neuroreceptors in your brain that make you feel hungry or full.
The most common side effects of this new generation of pills are gastrointestinal problems, vomiting, headache and dry mouth, Itskowitz says. Most people are able to tolerate those problems and get over them within a few weeks.
Still, there’s no guarantee that the drugs will make the difference. And without some extra effort, the effect might be negligible.
“When you look at the clinical trials that got these drugs approved, they are not magic bullets where people took a pill and lost weight,” Itskowitz says. “The volunteers were highly motivated, also counting calories and exercising. That’s really the combination that’s going to be effective, not simply taking a pill.”