Aug. 1, 2023 – Ashley Raibick is familiar with the weight loss yo-yo. She’s bounced through the big names: Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, etc. She drops 10 pounds and then slides off the plan only to see her weight pop back up.
But a day at her local med spa – where she gets facials, Botox, and fillers – changed all that for the 28-year-old hairstylist who just wanted to lose 18 pounds.
During one of her visits, she noticed that the spa’s owner was thinner. When Raibick asked her how she did it, the owner explained that she was on semaglutide and talked Raibick through the process. Raibick was convinced. That same day, she got a prescription from a doctor at the spa and got her first shot.
“Are people going to think I’m crazy for doing this?” she recalls thinking.
At 5-foot-4, her starting weight before the drug was 158, which would put her in the overweight, but not obese, category based on body mass index (BMI). And she really just wanted to get down to 140 and stop there.
No matter where you get your news, there’s a high likelihood that you’ve heard the name of the drug Raibick was given: Ozempic. It’s part of an ever-growing group of drugs called GLP-1 receptor agonists that contain a peptide called semaglutide as its main ingredient. Although first meant to treat type 2 diabetes, the reputation of Ozempic and its siblings picked up when already-thin celebrities were suspected of using the injectable drugs to become even slimmer.
The FDA approved Ozempic’s cousin, Wegovy, for “weight management” in patients with obesity a few years ago, whereas Ozempic is currently only approved for diabetes treatment. Curious patients who don’t fit the criteria can – and do – get off-label prescriptions if they can afford to pay out of pocket, often to the tune of more than $1,400 a month. But is Ozempic worth it, especially if you only have a relatively minor amount of weight to lose?
For many – mainly those who have been on the drug for a couple of months and have lost weight as a result – taking Ozempic has not only helped them shed stubborn weight, but has also freed them from the constant internal chatter around eating, commonly called “food noise.” But experts do not all agree that semaglutide is the right path for those who aren’t technically obese – especially in the long term.
After her first 9 weeks on semaglutide, Raibick had already lost 18 pounds. That’s when she decided to post about it on TikTok, and her videos on GLP-1s were viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
For the time being, there is no data on how many semaglutide takers are using the drug for diabetes and/or obesity, and how many are using it off-label for weight loss alone. But the company that makes Ozempic, Novo Nordisk, has reported sharp increases in sales and projects more profits down the road.
Raibick knows of others like her, who sought out the drug for more minor weight loss but aren’t as candid about their journeys. Some feel a stigma about having to resort to a weight loss drug intended to treat obesity, rather than achieving their goals with diet and lifestyle change alone.
Another reason for the secrecy is the guilt some who take Ozempic feel about using their financial privilege to get a drug that had serious shortages, which made it harder for some patients who need the drug for diabetes or obesity treatment to get their doses.
That’s what Diana Thiara, MD, the medical director of the University of California, San Francisco’s, weight management program, has been seeing on the ground.
“It’s one of the most depressing things I’ve experienced as a physician,” she said. In her practice, she has seen patients who have finally been able to access GLP-1s and have started to lose weight, only for them to regain the weight in the time it takes to find another prescription under their insurance coverage.
“It’s just horrible, there are patients spending all day calling dozens of pharmacies. I’ve never had a situation like this in my career,” said Thiara.
Ann, 48, a mom to a preteen girl who works from home full-time, has been taking Ozempic since the end of January. (Ann is not her real name; she asked that we use a pseudonym in order to feel comfortable speaking publicly about her use of Ozempic). Like Raibick, she has been paying out-of-pocket for her shots. At first, she was going to have to pay $1,400 a month, but she found a pharmacy in Canada that offers the medication for $350. It’s sourced globally, she said, so sometimes her Ozempic boxes will be in Czech or another foreign language.
Unlike a lot of women, Ann never had any qualms with her weight or the way her body looked. She was never big on exercise, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that she started to gain weight. She noticed the changes in her body once places started opening back up, and her clothes didn’t fit anymore.
She tried moving more and eating healthier. She tried former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast member Teddi Mellencamp’s controversial weight loss program, infamous for its incredibly restrictive dietary plan and excessive cardio recommendations. Nothing worked until another mom at her daughter’s school mentioned that she was on Ozempic.
Ann also started to get hot flashes and missed periods. The doctor who prescribed her Ozempic confirmed that she was perimenopausal and that, for women in this stage of life, losing weight can be harder than ever.
Ann, who is 5-foot-7, started out at 176 pounds (considered overweight) and now weighs in at 151, which is considered a normal weight by BMI measurements. She’s still on Ozempic but continues to struggle with the shame around the idea she’s potentially taking the drug away from someone else who might desperately need it. And she doesn’t know how long she’ll have to stay on Ozempic to maintain her weight loss.
Ann has reason for concern. A 2022 study found that most people regain the weight they lost within a year of stopping Ozempic.
Once Raibick hit her initial goal weight, she felt that she could keep going and lose a little more. It wasn’t until she got into the 120-pound range that she decided it was time to wean off the dose of semaglutide she had been taking.
“I got to the point where my mom was like, ‘All right, you’re a little too thin.’ But I’m just so happy where I’m at. I’m not mentally stressed out about fitting into clothes or getting into a bathing suit,” said Raibick, who has now lost around 30 pounds in total since she started the shots.
At one point, she stopped taking the drug altogether, and all of the hunger cravings and food noise semaglutide had suppressed came back to the surface. She didn’t gain any weight that month, she said, but the internal chatter around food was enough to make her start back on a lower dose, geared toward weight maintenance.
There’s also the issue of side effects. Raibick says she never had the overwhelming nausea and digestive problems that so many on the drug – including Ann – have reported. But Thiara said that even beyond these more common side effects, there are a number of other concerns – like the long-lasting effects on thyroid and reproductive health, especially for women – that we still don’t know enough about. And just recently, CNN reported that some Ozempic users have developed stomach paralysis due to the drug’s ability to slow down the passage of food through the digestive tract.
For Raibick, the out-of-pocket cost for the drug is around $600 a month. It’s an expense she’s willing to keep paying for, even just for the peace of mind the drug provides. She doesn’t have any plans to stop her semaglutide shots soon.
“There is nothing stopping me from – a year from now, when I’ve put a little weight back on – looking back at photos from this time and thinking I was way too skinny.”
Dan Azagury, MD, a bariatric surgeon and associate professor of surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine, tries GLP-1s for patients with obesity before considering bariatric surgery. For his patient population, it’s possible that drugs like Ozempic will be part of their lifelong treatment plans.
“We’re not doing it for the cosmetic part of it, we’re doing it for health,” he said. “What I tell my patients is, if you’re planning to start on this medication, you should be OK with the idea of staying on it forever.”
For doctors like Thiara who specialize in weight management, using Ozempic long-term for patients in a healthy weight range is the wrong approach.
“It's not about the way people look, it's about health. If you’re a normal weight or even in an overweight category, but not showing signs of risk of having elevated cardiometabolic disease. … You don't need to be taking medications for weight loss,” she said. “This idea of using medications for aesthetic reasons is really more related to societal ills around how we value thinness above anything else. That's not the goal, and it's not safe.”