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Do Weight Loss Medications Actually Work?

Prescription weight loss medications
Written by:

Rabia Khaliq

MSc in Applied Psychology
Reviewer:

Dr. Bradley Noon

MD

Content

Medical Disclaimer
The medications listed on this website are provided for informational purposes only. Their inclusion does not guarantee that they will be prescribed to any individual, as treatment decisions are ultimately at the discretion of healthcare providers. This list is not exhaustive, and healthcare providers may prescribe other medications, including non-stimulant options, based on the patient’s unique health circumstances and needs. Read more

In the United States, the quest for effective weight loss methods is more prevalent than ever. More than 30% of American adults are classified as overweight and more than 40% have obesity. This growing concern has fueled the weight loss market, pushing it to an impressive valuation of $299.39 billion in 2023.

Despite this booming market, the success rate paints a different picture. Only about 15% of individuals using weight loss supplements report significant weight loss, often defined as shedding off 5-10% of their body weight.

Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light to merely five prescription drugs for long-term weight management. These figures underline the complexity and challenges of relying solely on weight loss medicines for significant and sustainable body weight reduction.

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How Do Weight Loss Medicines Work?

Weight loss medications come in various forms, each designed to impact the body’s weight control mechanisms differently. They range from those that alter metabolic rates to ones that affect the psychological aspects of hunger, addressing the multifaceted nature of weight gain and loss.

  • Appetite suppressants. These are perhaps the most straightforward; they make you feel less hungry. For example, phentermine works on the brain, signaling that you are full or satisfied, thus reducing the urge to eat excessively.
  • Fat blockers. These medicines, like Orlistat, work in your digestive system to inhibit the body from absorbing a significant amount of fat from the food you eat, thereby reducing calorie intake.
  • Metabolism stimulants. Supplements containing elements like caffeine claim to boost metabolism. The idea is that by accelerating your metabolic rate, your body burns more calories, even at rest.

Pros And Cons of Weight Loss Medications

It is important to remember that weight loss medications are part of an industry driven by both medical research and market demands. While there are FDA-approved medications that have undergone rigorous testing, the market also includes over-the-counter supplements with varying degrees of effectiveness and safety.

Weight loss pills can aid in the process but expecting them to work miracles without any lifestyle changes can lead to disappointment and potential health risks. The decision to use these medications should be made with a clear understanding of what they can and cannot do [1*] .

Pros:

  1. Quick start of weight loss. For those who are significantly overweight, particularly with obesity-related health issues, weight loss pills can provide an initial push towards a healthier weight range.
  2. Under medical supervision: When these medications are prescribed by a healthcare professional, their usage is closely monitored. This oversight is crucial in managing potential side effects.
  3. Encouraging healthier habits. The early success seen with these medications can be motivating. When individuals see positive changes, even if initially due to the medication, they are often more inclined to adopt healthier habits, like better diet choices and regular exercise.

Cons:

  1. Side effects can be troublesome. Weight loss pills are not free from side effects. Depending on individual health specifics, these can range from mild digestive issues to more severe concerns like increased heart rate and blood pressure.
  2. Not a long-term solution. These medications are often more effective in the short term. For sustainable weight management, lifestyle changes are essential.
  3. Risk of misuse. There is also the potential for misuse, particularly with pills containing stimulants. Dependency or misuse can lead to significant health issues.

How Effective Are Prescription Weight Loss Medications?

The effectiveness of prescription weight loss medicines can vary significantly from person to person. Studies have shown that on average, these medications can lead to a weight loss of about 5% to 10% of initial body weight [2*] when used in conjunction with lifestyle modifications like diet and exercise. This may not sound like a lot, but even a modest weight loss of 5% can lead to significant health benefits, such as lowered blood pressure, reduced risk of diabetes, and improved cholesterol levels.

Most prescription weight loss medicines are recommended for short-term use, typically a few weeks or months. This is partly because their long-term efficacy has not been established in many cases, and also to minimize potential side effects. Note that these anti-obesity medications do not work for everyone; in clinical trials, some participants did not lose any significant weight loss. Therefore, these drugs are usually prescribed as a part of a comprehensive weight loss program that includes close monitoring by a healthcare professional.

Turn to the proven effectiveness of prescription weight loss drugs in treating obesity. Contact our team today for personalized treatment options.

Who Are Weight Loss Medications For?

Weight loss drugs are primarily designed for individuals who have not achieved their weight loss goals through diet and exercise alone and are facing health risks due to obesity. Specifically, they are most appropriate for:

  • People with significant weight-related health issues. Individuals with conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, where weight loss treatment can lead to better health outcomes.
  • Those with a high body mass index (BMI). Typically, these medications are prescribed for adults with a BMI of 30 or higher, or 27 or higher if they have obesity-related conditions.
  • Patients struggling with weight loss. Those who have earnestly tried to lose weight through lifestyle changes without sufficient results may be candidates for these medications.

Note that weight loss medicines are not generally recommended for those who are looking to lose a small amount of weight for cosmetic reasons. They are medical treatments intended for individuals facing significant health risks related to their weight.

When Should Someone Consider Taking Weight Loss Medication?

Deciding to take weight loss pills is a significant step that should be taken with careful consideration and medical advice. Generally, these medications are prescribed for:

  • Individuals with a BMI over 30. This is considered the threshold for obesity. People in this weight range are often at higher risk for obesity-related health problems.
  • Those with a BMI over 27 with obesity-related health conditions. This includes conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. In these cases, even a modest weight loss can have a positive impact on these health issues.

Anyone who wants to lose weight with medications should have realistic expectations and understand that these are most effective when combined with lifestyle changes. They are typically not recommended for those looking for a “quick fix” or who have only a small amount of weight to lose. Additionally, due to potential side effects and specific contraindications, a thorough medical evaluation is essential before starting any weight loss medication.

Can You Ever Stop Taking Weight Loss Medication?

Stopping a weight loss medication is a decision that should be made in consultation based on individual health status, weight management goals, and the advice of a healthcare provider. There are several factors to consider:

  • Gradual process. Just like starting a weight loss medication, stopping it should also be a gradual process. Abruptly discontinuing the medication can lead to withdrawal effects or a rapid regain of weight.
  • Lifestyle changes are crucial. Successful long-term weight management after stopping the medication often depends on maintaining a healthy diet and regular physical activity.
  • Monitoring after cessation. Close monitoring by a healthcare provider is important to manage any potential side effects of stopping the medication and to ensure that weight management goals are being maintained.
  • Potential for regain. There is a risk of regaining weight after stopping anti-obesity medications, particularly if lifestyle modifications are not sustained.

The Most Popular Weight-Loss Medications and Supplements

The market for weight-loss medications and supplements [3*] is vast, with several products gaining popularity due to their perceived effectiveness and marketing. Some of the most well-known include:

  • Ozempic (semaglutide). Initially approved for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, Ozempic has proved to have weight loss benefits. Its mechanism of action includes mimicking a hormone that regulates appetite and food intake, leading to reduced hunger and potentially significant weight loss.
  • Alli and Xenical (orlistat). These drugs work by blocking fat absorption in the intestines. Alli is available over the counter, while Xenical is prescription-strength.
  • Qsymia (phentermine-topiramate). A combination medication that suppresses appetite and is used for weight loss. It combines the appetite suppressant phentermine with topiramate, an anticonvulsant that has weight loss side effects.
  • Contrave (naltrexone-bupropion). A medication that combines naltrexone, typically used for alcohol and opioid dependence, with bupropion, an antidepressant that also helps with weight loss. It targets the brain’s hunger and reward system.
  • Saxenda (liraglutide). Originally developed to treat diabetes, it is approved for weight loss in those who are overweight or obese. It mimics an intestinal hormone that tells the brain your stomach is full.
  • Mounjaro (tirzepatide). Another antidiabetic medicine that can also be used as a part of a weight loss plan. It improves insulin secretion and slows gastric emptying, among other effects, which can help with weight loss.
  • Bontril PDM (phendimetrazine). A stimulant similar to an amphetamine, phendimetrazine is an appetite suppressant for the short-term treatment of obesity.
  • Phentermine. A prescription medication that suppresses appetite. It is often used short-term and is sometimes combined with topiramate for better results.
  • Garcinia cambogia extract. A popular over-the-counter supplement. It is derived from a fruit and claims to inhibit fat production and reduce appetite.
  • Hydroxycut. A well-known supplement brand, which includes various ingredients like caffeine and plant extracts, claimed to aid in weight loss.
  • Green coffee bean extract. Another supplement that is said to contribute to weight loss through chlorogenic acid, which is thought to affect how the body handles blood sugar and metabolism.

While these products are popular, you should approach them with caution. The effectiveness of over-the-counter weight loss pills, in particular, can vary, and they are not regulated by the FDA to the same degree as prescription medications. Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new diet pill or supplement, even when it is a prescription medication, especially if you have existing health conditions or are taking other medications.

Explore the potential of prescription weight loss medications with qualified medical providers.

Bottom Line

While weight loss pills and supplements can be helpful for some individuals, they are not universal solutions. Their effectiveness varies based on personal health, lifestyle, and adherence to a healthier overall routine. Carefully consider prescription medications and over-the-counter options under the guidance of a healthcare professional. Use them in conjunction with sustainable lifestyle changes.

Ultimately, successful and long-term weight management is more often achieved through a balanced diet, regular exercise, and a commitment to a healthier lifestyle.

FAQ

A healthcare provider may prescribe weight loss medication if you meet certain medical criteria, typically including having a BMI (body mass index) of 30 or higher, or 27 or higher with obesity-related health conditions like hypertension or diabetes. However, the decision also depends on your overall health, medical history, and whether the doctor deems it appropriate and safe for your specific situation. It’s important to consult with a healthcare professional for personalized advice.
Weight loss medication typically starts showing results within 3 to 6 months when combined with diet and exercise, although individual responses can vary.
Pregnant or nursing women; individuals with heart disease, high blood pressure, liver or kidney disease, those with a history of eating disorders; children, teenagers, and anyone on medication that could interact with weight loss medication should avoid them.
The primary goal of obesity treatment is getting healthy, with weight loss being a part of achieving overall health improvement.

Sources

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3 sources
  1. Embracing the Pros and Cons of the New Weight Loss Medications (Semaglutide, Tirzepatide, Etc.)
    Source link
  2. Long-Term Efficacy and Safety of Anti-Obesity Treatment: Where Do We Stand?
    Source link
  3. The best drug supplement for obesity treatment: a systematic review and network meta-analysis
    Source link
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Written by:

Rabia Khaliq

MSc in Applied Psychology
Reviewer:

Dr. Bradley Noon

MD
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