The Obesity Cure

ByAnthony Vennare

A new generation of weight loss drugs promises to end obesity… but not its root causes.

Weigh In

As obesity rates and associated healthcare costs rise, drugs designed to treat type 2 diabetes are being prescribed for weight loss.

  • 73% of US adults and 35% of children are overweight or obese, driving $173B in annual healthcare costs.
  • Currently valued at $2.5B, the global market for anti-obesity drugs is estimated to reach $50B by 2030, per Morgan Stanley.
  • Less than 3% of US adults eligible for anti-obesity therapeutics receive them, and the FDA recently approved the treatment for children.

Delivering impressive results while raising red flags, drugs like semaglutide are fueling a billion-dollar market.

Struggling to meet demand, Big Pharma is already cashing in. Meanwhile, a growing number of digital platforms are scaling up to deliver prescription meds.

Drug Lords

Pharma execs, researchers, and some doctors have used words like “breakthrough” and “blockbuster” to describe this burgeoning category of weight loss medications.

More specifically, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) drugs stimulate insulin secretion, suppressing appetite and lowering blood glucose.

After gaining FDA approval to treat type 2 diabetes, the first GLP-1 was okayed for weight loss in 2010. More recently, positive trial results and social media acclaim fueled mainstream awareness and surging demand.

  • Novo Nordisk’s semaglutide, branded as Ozempic and Wegovy, reduced body weight by ~15% after 16 months.
  • Eli Lilly-developed tirzepatide, sold as Mounjaro, led to a 21% drop in body weight over the same time period.

In the pipeline. Giving chase, companies like Amgen and Pfizer are working on GLP-1 competitors. Courting convenience, drug makers hope to replace the current class of injectables with anti-obesity pills.

Cause for concern. Still new and lacking long-term studies, the side effects are not fully understood. Gastrointestinal issues, nausea, and dehydration are common. Increased risk of thyroid cancer has also been flagged.

A troubling trend, multiple studies show that semaglutide users regain weight when treatment is stopped — meaning, absent lasting behavior change, the drug must be continued for life.

Expensive and not covered by insurance, once-weekly injections can cost upwards of $1,500/month. Inaccessible for those most in need, the drugs are popular among celebrities and individuals seeking aesthetic enhancement.

Virtual Care

Gaining traction, digital health companies are pairing prescriptions with lifestyle coaching to reimagine obesity care.

  • Calibrate and Found have each raised more than $100M for their weight loss platforms.
  • Virtual clinics including knownwell ($4.5M), Enara ($6M), Alfie ($1.2M), Form Health ($12M), and men-focused Fella have all secured funding.
  • Telehealth provider Ro just announced GLP-1 prescriptions via its “Body Program,” signaling that other brands like Hims or Thirty Madison may enter this space.

Promising sustainable results, and using medication as a “tool,” weight management companies hope to destigmatize obesity by shifting the focus from personal willpower to biological factors.

But, as Kaiser Health News detailed, while companies leverage social ads to drive sign-ups, patients are questioning the quality of care they receive.

Looking Ahead

Solving the obesity epidemic is complicated. And it’s abundantly clear that simply telling people to move more and eat well isn’t the answer.

But, that’s not because it doesn’t work. It’s because federal policies, Big Food influences, and a host of socioeconomic factors make it nearly impossible.

While pharmaceuticals will likely be part of the solution, pushing prescriptions instead of confronting the root causes of obesity—mainly, the modern American diet and our lack of physical activity—will only make matters worse.

Ultimately, if we don’t take action to prioritize prevention and incentivize healthy behaviors, we’re stuck with the sick care status quo.