- Semaglutide is a popular weight loss medication with research-backed results.
- But doctors say patients need to be aware of how it works before deciding to take the drug.
- It can have side effects like nausea, and it needs to be used long-term with healthy habits to work.
Demand for the popular weight loss medication semaglutide has skyrocketed in the past two years, with brand names like Ozempic and Wegovy becoming social media shorthand for extraordinary weight loss transformations.
Research suggests is can be an effective way to lose weight and keep it off, as well as improve blood sugar control and other important markers of health.
However, the medication isn’t for everyone — it’s intended for people with body mass index of 30 or higher, 27 with health complications, or type 2 diabetes.
Before taking semaglutide, you should consider important factors like your lifestyle, potential side effects, treatment plan, and long-term outlook, according to weight-loss doctors.
Healthy lifestyle habits like diet and exercise are still a priority
Semaglutide can be incredibly effective for people who have struggled to lose weight by other means, endocrinologist and obesity medicine specialist Dr. Scott Isaacs previously told Insider. As such, the medication has helped shift stigma around weight by showing that it’s not a matter of personal choices or lack of effort.
“It’s not about willpower, it’s about hormones and human biology,” he said.
However, semaglutide isn’t a replacement for healthy habits, and in many cases, other weight loss strategies should be tried prior to taking the medication, according to Isaacs.
Even for people successfully losing weight on semaglutide, good nutrition and physical activity are crucial to keep them on track and to maintain long-term health, he said.
The medication has side effects, including nausea
While semaglutide is considered a very safe medication, it’s common for patients to have mild adverse reactions, particularly when they first start taking it, said Dr. Christopher McGowan, a board-certified physician in internal medicine, gastroenterology, and obesity medicine.
Gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and vomiting are the most common side effects. Patients have also reported major loss of appetite and difficulty eating foods they previously enjoyed, especially sugary or fried foods.
It’s important to be aware of potential issues, and work with your medical team to minimize them, according to McGowan.
“Understand what can occur. Be prepared for side effects, and plan to manage them,” he said.
Not all forms of the medication are the same
The high cost of semaglutide, at around $900-$1,300 per month, is a major barrier to entry, but less expensive versions of the drug may be untested and unverified.
Compounded semaglutide, made by separating the active ingredient and combining it with other substances like B vitamins, is often more cheaply available online.
It could be a legitimate form of the medication when obtained from a reputable source, but McGowan and Isaacs said a lack of transparency makes it difficult to know what you’re getting.
As a result, both said they advise patients to stick to the FDA-approved brand names, Wegovy and Ozempic.
Follow up with a doctor is essential
One concerning trend around semaglutide is that patients are often getting the medication online with a single telehealth visit, and aren’t receiving the proper ongoing care, doctors told Insider.
“Treatment isn’t just a prescription. There’s very easy access to prescriptions without proper support,” McGowan said.
In order for the medication to be safe and effective, patients need routine check-ins to make sure they’re starting with an appropriate dose and adjusting it over time, as well as addressing any side effects or other health issues that could arise, he said.
Isaacs said he routinely sees patients who have limited results from semaglutide because they don’t have consistent follow-ups with their healthcare providers.
“Patients are paying for it, but not being told what to expect, and they’re not have a full medical evaluation,” he said.
It isn’t a quick fix
Doctors are also concerned about social media myths around semaglutide. A major misconception is that people can use the drug temporarily to get a little thinner in a short period of time — in fact, research shows that as soon as you stop taking the medication, you’ll regain the weight.
As such, it’s important for patients to know that taking semaglutide is a long-term decision, similar to using medication for other chronic conditions like high blood pressure or cholesterol.
“People are seeing on social media it’s a quick fix or a way to lose a few pounds. That’s not how the medications are studied or intended to be used,” McGowan said.