Obesity is a global health concern, affecting people regardless of gender and age. In Europe, 59% of adults and almost one in three children are overweight or living with obesity. As a matter of fact, obesity prevalence among adults in the European Region is higher than in any other WHO region except for the Americas. Why should we be worried? Being overweight and obese are among the leading causes of death and disability in the European Region, causing an estimated 1.2 million deaths annually. Obesity also increases the risk for many non-communicable diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Recently, efforts to manage and reduce obesity have been popularised through weight loss programmes and trending diets. People rely on these lifestyle changes to help reduce or prevent weight gain and obesity. However, a recent survey of European adults found that while 79% report trying to lose weight in the past year, three-quarters did not achieve a clinically meaningful weight loss — losing at least 5% of their body weight. Participants of this survey were asked about the different weight loss methods they used, from weight loss programmes, anti-obesity medications, and calorie-controlled or restricted diets to physical exercise. Interestingly, exercise and calorie-controlled or restricted diets were the least beneficial for weight loss.
Anti-obesity and weight loss medications may come with a stigma and seem unreliable. However, if consulted properly with your healthcare providers and combined with lifestyle changes, they may help with more than just weight loss. In this post, we’ll discuss the role of lifestyle changes in weight loss and how prescription medications can enhance your weight loss journey.
The role of lifestyle changes in weight loss
Before we start discussing weight loss and anti-obesity medications, it’s important to understand what meaningful lifestyle changes can do for weight loss. We’ve previously written about the importance of developing a weight loss mindset to complement diet and exercise. Our mind and body are inevitably connected, and successful weight loss relies on both mental and physical resilience. Some tips we provided on adjusting your weight loss mindset include avoiding fad diets, not treating exercise as punishment, and eating natural foods.
Watching what we eat, when we eat, and what we don’t eat can be a good first step toward weight loss. At the same time, some diets work for others, and others don’t. For some people, adding physical exercise to their weight loss journey helps build a routine and keeps their bodies engaged and healthy. However, these may still not be enough for people with more severe cases of overweight or obesity. In that case, combining healthy lifestyle changes with prescription weight loss medication may be the way to go.
What are the currently available prescription medications?
There are currently several prescription weight loss medications in the EU that have been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). These include:
- Saxenda (containing liraglutide), which improves blood glucose control and contributes to significant weight loss.
- Wegovy (containing semaglutide), which is used together with diet and physical activity to help people to lose weight (up to 5% reduction in body weight) and keep their weight under control.
- Xenical (containing orlistat), which is used together with dieting to treat obese or very overweight patients who may be at risk of weight-related illness.
Depending on the medication, medical weight loss results may range from 5% to 15%, with newer medications seeing better results. Because they are designed to treat obesity — a chronic disease — these are often taken long-term to optimise weight loss and health. Like other types of prescription medicine, weight loss medication has side effects that your healthcare provider should discuss upon prescription, including nausea, diarrhoea, and constipation. Most patients experience these common side effects through mild to moderate symptoms, which are relatively short-term.
It’s important to note that prescription medications cannot and do not replace healthy eating. As noted above, these medications are most effective when used together with diet and/or physical activity.
Benefits of combining prescription medication with lifestyle changes
For weight loss and anti-obesity medication to enhance weight loss, it’s important to take them together with crucial lifestyle changes like diet or regular physical exercise. A study on anti-obesity medication found that overweight and obese people could maintain an average weight loss of 10.6% over three to five years using a combination of lifestyle changes and anti-obesity medications. This is a significant percentage as this weight reduction is also associated with improvements in cardiovascular risk factors like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and sleep apnea. At the same time, improvements in mobility and overall quality of life were noted.
Finally, in addition to physical lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, medication for obesity is often prescribed in conjunction with specialists, such as a patient’s psychiatrist. For example, patients taking medication for serotonin re-uptake to treat depression may experience weight gain due to their antidepressants. In such cases, a cross-discussion can occur so a more weight-neutral medication can be prescribed.