There's no magic bullet yet -- but for people with obesity, weight loss drugs can be a helpful part of treatment.
To many people, any weight loss drug seems like it must be a scam. It's just too good to be true, as plausible as an effective bust-enlargement cream or Home Alchemy Kit.
However, weight loss drugs -- like Xenical and Meridia -- do exist. They also work. And pharmaceutical companies across the globe are industriously working on more. They're not for cosmetic use, so mildly overweight people fretting about bathing suit season shouldn't apply. Their effects are also modest, usually resulting in a loss of no more than 10% of a person's body weight. Contrary to some hopes, they don't replace diet and exercise; weight loss drugs only work in conjunction with lifestyle changes.
Why Use a Weight Loss Drug?
Many people, including doctors, have a strong aversion to using weight loss drugs to treat obesity, according to Holly Wyatt, MD, an endocrinologist at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. The longstanding wisdom was that obesity resulted from a failure of willpower. If only people would just stop eating so much and get off the couch, no one would be obese. So why bother with drugs?
But that simple way of thinking is increasingly under fire from experts. It isn't the whole story.
"Lifestyle is a big factor in why people gain weight," Wyatt tells WebMD. "But there's a definitely a genetic and a physiologic reason, too. Because of differences in physiology, some people will just have a harder time losing and maintaining weight than others."
George A. Bray, MD, professor of medicine at Louisiana State University, agrees that the traditional view of obesity -- as essentially a moral failing -- is wrong.
"It's cruel and hurtful to categorize overweight and obese Americans as 'lazy' or 'weak-willed,'" he says, "and to conclude that all they need to do is just push themselves away from the table."
Obesity as a Disease
Obesity is a killer. So is it enough for a doctor to tell a chronically obese person to lose weight and leave it at that? Wyatt and Bray both point out that we routinely use medication for other conditions that can be controlled by changes in diet and exercise.