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Obesity drugs and the war against bad diets

wegovy weight loss drug

Wegovy. It sounds like the name of a loathsome delicacy from some exotic land. Or one of those wacky new pharmaceuticals.

In fact, it’s the latter. It’s the American brand name for one version of a type of drug called GLP-1 receptor agonists. They fight obesity. Unlike the people who take it, Wegovy is becoming very big very fast. Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical that produces it, has a market capitalization of $326 billion, making it the second most valuable listed pharmaceutical company in the world.

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This drug works: in one study, it enabled participants to lose an astonishing 20 percent of their body weight. Billionaire Elon Musk says it has helped him. If $1300 a month (the price for Wegovy in the U.S.) is no big deal for you, it might help you too.

The market for Wegovy (which is not covered by most health plans) is now limited to the rich and/or beautiful. But this drug is still in its initial stages: like most pharmaceuticals, it will no doubt see major price drops in the future, especially as generic versions become available.

The Economist, which discussed these drugs in a recent cover story, is looking to the long term, suggesting that they might solve the worldwide health problem of obesity. And it is worldwide: in 2020, nearly 40 percent of the human race was obese or overweight, according to the World Obesity Foundation.

As the price for obesity drugs falls, The Economist suggests that they may become as common as statins, which are regularly prescribed to lower cholesterol. Like statins, if you start taking them, you will probably be on them for the rest of your life. (Great news if you’re a drug company.)

Of course, these drugs are treating symptoms, not causes.

“Processed food and sedentary lifestyles are the principal elements of today’s obesogenic environment,” The Economist reports. “The steady growth of human waistlines has defied the efforts of doctors, dieticians, pharmacologists, and politicians for generations.”

Obesity drugs can no doubt provide major health benefits for millions (apart from side effects such as vomiting and diarrhea). But if they become as common as The Economist suggests, it could mean that the battle against unhealthy diets and foods has been lost: “I’m on Wegovy, so Super Size me!”

Could obesity drugs derail current policy moves to discourage processed food consumption in favor of healthy choices like fruits and vegetables? It is possible, even likely.

Antidepressants provide an exact analogy. They have provided real relief for tens of millions of people. Yet the underlying problems, such as anxiety and depression, are more prevalent than ever. The drugs address the symptoms, but not the causes, which I believe are social and cultural: principally the fact that Americans today, regardless of race, gender, or class, are regarded as mere economic units. Prozac will not fix that.

In short, obesity drugs could well steer people away from the real solution: a healthy, moderate diet. No doubt they will lead to complications of their own.

Just as antidepressants have. As The Economist also notes, “Depression and other mental-health conditions—and some of the drugs used to treat them—encourage weight gain.” These medications include “lithium, antidepressants and anti-insomnia drugs.”

But don’t worry. Soon there will be another line of pharmaceuticals to deal with the side effects of obesity drugs.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.