Ozempic Side Effects Are "Really Just Eating Disorder Symptoms," Doctor Says
As the diabetes drug's popularity grows, so do concerns about its off-label use for weight loss.
By now, most people have heard of the diabetes drug Ozempic. Between Jimmy Kimmel joking about it at the Oscars and more and more celebrities admitting to taking it, the medication that many people are using off-label for weight loss (generic name: semaglutide) seems to be sweeping the nation. But as Ozempic's popularity grows, experts are increasingly concerned about its ramifications, and whether it could cause a rise in eating disorders.
"Our society has always idealized thinness and demonized fatness," says psychologist and researcher Erin Parks, PhD, co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer at Equip, a virtual eating disorder treatment program. "Thin people are more likely to be hired and less likely to receive attributions of laziness—and thus it is no surprise that people will try a wide variety of things (including off-label use of medications) to achieve thinness, despite there being zero evidence that we can change our weight or body shape for much longer than a year."
Parks says that while "we don't know the mechanism by which [Ozempic] causes somebody to lose weight" (due to the fact that it hasn't been studied specifically for weight loss), some of the drug's side effects "are really just eating disorder symptoms."
Read on to find out what those side effects are, and why Parks feels that Ozempic's popularity "glorifies using eating disorder behaviors" for weight loss.
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Ozempic isn't approved as a weight-loss drug.
Ozempic, or semaglutide, was approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017 for use in patients with Type 2 diabetes, according to Drugs.com.
In June 2021, the FDA approved Wegovy, which is also semaglutide but in a higher dose, for chronic weight management in people who are overweight or obese and also suffer from a weight-related condition like high blood pressure or high cholesterol. (It was the first weight-loss drug the agency had approved since 2014.)
Still, Parks tells Best Life, many people are taking Ozempic with the hope of shedding pounds. "In Dec. 2022 alone, 1.2 million Ozempic prescriptions were filled in the U.S.—and we have to assume that many of those were not for people with diabetes," she says.
Side effects of Ozempic include nausea and vomiting.
GoodRx lists nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea among the most common side effects of semaglutide. "These medications suppress appetite and slow the rate at which the stomach empties, making people feel satiated by smaller amounts of food," explains Parks. This means patients may feel sick to their stomach and possibly throw up if they eat regular-sized portions.
"My full time job is treating eating disorders," Parks says. "If Linda came into my office and told me that she was eating only one meal per day and vomiting most mornings in order to lose weight, I would diagnose her with an eating disorder. With Ozempic, we call decreased hunger and daily nausea and vomiting 'side effects.' How is it different?"
Parks explains that "it doesn't seem like Ozempic causes fat to magically burn. What it does is it makes people feel very nauseated." This, she says, discourages them from eating, since they may vomit if they do eat, or if they eat too much.
"If this truly were some sort of miracle drug and worked by melting fat or something like that, that would be a different means of … causing someone to lose weight," she adds. "But the mechanism by which Ozempic helps people lose weight is by helping them restrict—helping them consume the number of calories that most people who struggle with anorexia consume, or helping them vomit daily similar to people who have bulimia."
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Losing weight is linked with anxiety and depression.
Whether you take Ozempic or not, Parks says that getting thinner is associated with diminished mental health. "Just the act of losing weight, and being underweight for where your body wants to be, increases anxiety, and increases depression, and increases thoughts of food in your body," she explains. If this sounds counterintuitive, that's because it is.
"People are like, 'Oh, I'm finally the weight I want to be, I'm happy about the weight, but I'm the most miserable I've ever been,'" says Parks. "Because losing weight creates depression, losing weight creates anxiety … If you haven't been eating enough for your body, your body is going to think about food all the time. So it's a such a paradox that people finally get to be the weight they want and they're often the most miserable they've ever been."
Parks is careful to note that while Ozempic itself may not cause eating disorders, the buzz around it "undeniably praises eating disorder behaviors and can set off or re-trigger an eating disorder for those who are vulnerable to developing one. The thoughts and behaviors that arise as a result of being on a medication like Ozempic—near-constant preoccupation with meals and food, compulsive exercise, body checking, thinking your body determines your value—are harder to unlearn the longer you're in them."
Eating nutrient-rich foods and getting plenty of exercise can help you achieve a healthy weight.
Of course, maintaining a healthy weight is important to our overall well-being: Experts from the Mayo Clinic to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree on that point. "A healthy weight can help control high blood pressure, manage cholesterol and diabetes, as well as reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease," the Mayo Clinic experts write.
If you're trying to shed a few pounds, however, you may be better off sticking to the tried-and-true method of eating a varied diet that's low in sugar and processed foods and high in protein and healthy fats, moving your body in order to build muscle and burn calories, and consulting with your healthcare provider about what's best for your particular situation.
The most important thing, says Parks, is that you're able to live your life without being plagued by worries about diet and body image.
"When we talk about eating disorders … at the end of the day, we really don't care how much you weigh. What we care about is what's going on in your brain," she says. "The process of having an eating disorder is having your mind be absolutely preoccupied with thoughts of food and your body, and it just gets in the way of you enjoying your life."
Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.
- Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3164982/
- Source: https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-approves-new-drug-treatment-chronic-weight-management-first-2014
- Source: https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/healthy-weight
- Source: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/index.html