Obesity: Should I Take Weight-Loss Medicine?

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You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Obesity: Should I Take Weight-Loss Medicine?

Get the facts

Your options

  • Take weight-loss medicine, along with trying to eat healthy foods and being active.
  • Try to lose weight without weight-loss medicines by eating healthy foods and being active.

Key points to remember

  • Being very overweight makes you more likely to have serious health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Weight-loss medicines may be an option if you haven't been able to lose weight with lifestyle changes, such as healthy eating and exercise, and if:
    • Your BMI (body mass index) is at least 30 (or at least 27.5 if you are Asian).
    • Your BMI is at least 27 and you also have another health problem related to your weight, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.
  • Medicine may help you lose a small amount of weight. But without permanent changes in eating and exercise habits, most people gain weight again after they stop taking the medicine.
  • You must decide if the benefit of taking a certain medicine outweighs its side effects. Side effects of weight-loss medicines may include headaches, nausea, and bowel problems.
  • Weight-loss medicines can be expensive. They may not be covered by your health plan.
  • It is important to talk with your doctor about how much weight you expect to lose and how long you would need to take the medicine.
FAQs

What are weight-loss medicines?

Weight-loss medicines work by making you feel less hungry, making you feel full more quickly, or changing how you digest fat.

These prescription medicines include:

  • Orlistat (Xenical). This drug prevents some of the fat calories you eat from being absorbed in your intestines. A lower strength of it, sold as Alli, is available without a prescription.
  • Appetite suppressants (benzphetamine, diethylpropion, phendimetrazine, phentermine). These drugs keep you from feeling as hungry. They are approved only for short-term use.
  • Phentermine/topiramate (Qsymia). This medicine combines the drugs phentermine and topiramate. Taking it once a day can help you eat less.
  • Lorcaserin (Belviq). This medicine can help you eat less and feel satisfied with eating smaller amounts of food. You take it twice a day.
  • Bupropion/naltrexone (Contrave). This medicine may reduce your appetite and help you avoid overeating.
  • Liraglutide (Saxenda). This medicine may help you eat less. It's given as a shot once a day.

How well do weight-loss medicines work?

Weight-loss medicines help some people lose weight. The medicines are used along with diet changes and more physical activity.

Without making lifestyle changes, you will gain back the weight if you stop taking the medicine.

Medicine doesn't work for everyone. If you don't lose weight within 4 weeks of starting the medicine, it probably won't help you.footnote 1

What are the risks and side effects of some weight-loss medicines?

Weight loss medicines often cause side effects such as nausea, headache, and dizziness. Some also may cause diarrhea. Sometimes the side effects are mild and go away over time.

Each medicine also has its own side effects. Here are a few examples:

  • Orlistat (Xenical) can cause changes in bowel habits. These may include oily or fatty stool and being unable to control bowel movements.
  • Liraglutide (Saxenda) may cause low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) in people who have diabetes. In anyone, it may cause stomach pain and upset. It also can make the heart beat faster. Cases of inflammation of the pancreas (acute pancreatitis) have been reported.
  • Appetite suppressants (benzphetamine, diethylpropion, phendimetrazine, phentermine) can make you nervous and irritable. They may raise your blood pressure. You may have trouble sleeping. It is possible to become addicted to these medicines.

If you are under a lot of stress, have an emotional illness such as anxiety or depression, or have an alcohol or drug problem, you need treatment for that problem before you use weight-loss medicine. If you don't treat it, you will have a harder time losing weight.

Why might your doctor recommend weight-loss medicine?

Your doctor may recommend weight-loss medicine if:

  • Your BMI is at least 30 (27.5 if you are Asian).
  • Your BMI is at least 27 and you have other problems related to your weight, such as:
    • High blood pressure.
    • High cholesterol.
    • Type 2 diabetes.
  • You have tried for some time to lose weight with diet and physical activity.
  • You don't have untreated depression or another major mental illness, and you don't misuse alcohol.

If your doctor prescribes a weight-loss medicine for you, tell him or her about all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements that you are taking.

Your doctor will want to know your side effects and watch to see if your weight loss improves your type 2 diabetes, cholesterol, and/or blood pressure.

Compare your options

Compare

What is usually involved?









What are the benefits?









What are the risks and side effects?









Take weight-loss medicines Take weight-loss medicines
  • Depending on the type of drug, you take a pill 1 to 3 times a day or get a shot once a day.
  • You also try to make lasting changes in your diet and physical activity level.
  • Weight-loss medicines can help you lose a small amount of weight.
  • The weight loss that you see right away can motivate you to continue your healthy eating and exercising after the medicine is stopped.
  • If you lose weight, you may be less likely to have related health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Possible side effects include:
    • Increased blood pressure.
    • Headache.
    • Sleep problems.
    • Unpleasant changes in bowel habits.
  • Unless you make long-term changes in your eating and exercise habits, you are likely to gain back the weight after you stop taking the medicine.
  • Weight-loss medicines can be expensive. They may not be covered by your health plan.
Use only diet and exercise to lose weight Use only diet and exercise to lose weight
  • You try to make lasting changes in your diet and physical activity.
  • Eating fewer calories while being more active may help you lose weight.
  • You avoid the risks and side effects of taking weight-loss medicines.
  • You avoid the cost of taking medicine.
  • If you aren't able to lose weight using diet and exercise, you're more likely to have related health problems. These may include heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Personal stories about using medicine for obesity

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

I was concerned about taking a weight-loss medicine. I was worried about those stimulant diet pills that people took years ago that had such a questionable reputation. But I've learned that some of the newer medicines are different. And after struggling to lose not even 5 pounds over the past 8 months, I am now ready to see if medicines can add anything to the good habits I've tried to establish. I know the medicine isn't going to be a magic bullet. But I hope it can give me that little extra help I seem to need.

John, age 50

I realize that I didn't gain my extra weight in just a few months. I don't expect to be able to lose it all quickly. I want to get back to eating a more balanced diet again and to set a good example for my kids so that they don't develop poor eating habits as they grow up. I plan to start taking them for walks and introducing them to lots of outdoor activities that we can do together. I don't want to be on pills for the rest of my life. I need a long-term solution.

George, age 45

My sister has been taking a weight-loss medicine for about 4 months now, and she has been on a low-fat diet. We have been walking together 3 times a week. She has lost about 10 pounds already. I don't think I've lost any weight yet, even though I have been watching what I eat, too. Maybe medicines can help me lose weight.

Susan, age 42

The side effects of Xenical sound pretty unpleasant to me. I have made a few changes in my diet, and I am walking twice a week. I'm going to give myself at least a year of a balanced diet and exercise before I think about taking a medicine.

Carla, age 40

What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to take weight-loss medicine

Reasons not to take weight-loss medicine

I am desperate to lose weight, and I think medicine will help me.

I don't like the idea of taking medicine.

More important
Equally important
More important

I have tried diet and exercise, and I just can't seem to lose weight.

I want to keep trying diet and exercise before I start taking medicine.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about the cost of medicine.

I don't think I can afford the cost of medicine.

More important
Equally important
More important

I think losing a little bit of weight is worth the side effects of medicine.

I don't think the side effects are worth the small amount of weight I might lose by taking medicine.

More important
Equally important
More important

Along with taking medicine, I'm willing to work hard to make permanent changes in my eating and exercise habits.

Medicines aren't worth it to me if I'll just gain the weight back without permanent lifestyle changes.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Taking weight-loss medicine

NOT taking weight-loss medicine

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1, Weight-loss medicine is all I need to lose lots of weight permanently.
2, I may suffer unpleasant side effects if I take weight-loss medicine.

Decide what's next

1,Do you understand the options available to you?
2,Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?
3,Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

Your Summary

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.

Your decision 

Next steps

Which way you're leaning

How sure you are

Your comments

Your knowledge of the facts 

Key concepts that you understood

Key concepts that may need review

Getting ready to act 

Patient choices

Credits

Credits
Author Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Theresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy
Specialist Medical Reviewer Caroline S. Rhoads, MD - Internal Medicine
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Obesity: Should I Take Weight-Loss Medicine?

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
  1. Get the facts
  2. Compare your options
  3. What matters most to you?
  4. Where are you leaning now?
  5. What else do you need to make your decision?

1. Get the Facts

Your options

  • Take weight-loss medicine, along with trying to eat healthy foods and being active.
  • Try to lose weight without weight-loss medicines by eating healthy foods and being active.

Key points to remember

  • Being very overweight makes you more likely to have serious health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Weight-loss medicines may be an option if you haven't been able to lose weight with lifestyle changes, such as healthy eating and exercise, and if:
    • Your BMI (body mass index) is at least 30 (or at least 27.5 if you are Asian).
    • Your BMI is at least 27 and you also have another health problem related to your weight, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.
  • Medicine may help you lose a small amount of weight. But without permanent changes in eating and exercise habits, most people gain weight again after they stop taking the medicine.
  • You must decide if the benefit of taking a certain medicine outweighs its side effects. Side effects of weight-loss medicines may include headaches, nausea, and bowel problems.
  • Weight-loss medicines can be expensive. They may not be covered by your health plan.
  • It is important to talk with your doctor about how much weight you expect to lose and how long you would need to take the medicine.
FAQs

What are weight-loss medicines?

Weight-loss medicines work by making you feel less hungry, making you feel full more quickly, or changing how you digest fat.

These prescription medicines include:

  • Orlistat (Xenical). This drug prevents some of the fat calories you eat from being absorbed in your intestines. A lower strength of it, sold as Alli, is available without a prescription.
  • Appetite suppressants (benzphetamine, diethylpropion, phendimetrazine, phentermine). These drugs keep you from feeling as hungry. They are approved only for short-term use.
  • Phentermine/topiramate (Qsymia). This medicine combines the drugs phentermine and topiramate. Taking it once a day can help you eat less.
  • Lorcaserin (Belviq). This medicine can help you eat less and feel satisfied with eating smaller amounts of food. You take it twice a day.
  • Bupropion/naltrexone (Contrave). This medicine may reduce your appetite and help you avoid overeating.
  • Liraglutide (Saxenda). This medicine may help you eat less. It's given as a shot once a day.

How well do weight-loss medicines work?

Weight-loss medicines help some people lose weight. The medicines are used along with diet changes and more physical activity.

Without making lifestyle changes, you will gain back the weight if you stop taking the medicine.

Medicine doesn't work for everyone. If you don't lose weight within 4 weeks of starting the medicine, it probably won't help you.1

What are the risks and side effects of some weight-loss medicines?

Weight loss medicines often cause side effects such as nausea, headache, and dizziness. Some also may cause diarrhea. Sometimes the side effects are mild and go away over time.

Each medicine also has its own side effects. Here are a few examples:

  • Orlistat (Xenical) can cause changes in bowel habits. These may include oily or fatty stool and being unable to control bowel movements.
  • Liraglutide (Saxenda) may cause low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) in people who have diabetes. In anyone, it may cause stomach pain and upset. It also can make the heart beat faster. Cases of inflammation of the pancreas (acute pancreatitis) have been reported.
  • Appetite suppressants (benzphetamine, diethylpropion, phendimetrazine, phentermine) can make you nervous and irritable. They may raise your blood pressure. You may have trouble sleeping. It is possible to become addicted to these medicines.

If you are under a lot of stress, have an emotional illness such as anxiety or depression, or have an alcohol or drug problem, you need treatment for that problem before you use weight-loss medicine. If you don't treat it, you will have a harder time losing weight.

Why might your doctor recommend weight-loss medicine?

Your doctor may recommend weight-loss medicine if:

  • Your BMI is at least 30 (27.5 if you are Asian).
  • Your BMI is at least 27 and you have other problems related to your weight, such as:
    • High blood pressure.
    • High cholesterol.
    • Type 2 diabetes.
  • You have tried for some time to lose weight with diet and physical activity.
  • You don't have untreated depression or another major mental illness, and you don't misuse alcohol.

If your doctor prescribes a weight-loss medicine for you, tell him or her about all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements that you are taking.

Your doctor will want to know your side effects and watch to see if your weight loss improves your type 2 diabetes, cholesterol, and/or blood pressure.

2. Compare your options

  Take weight-loss medicines Use only diet and exercise to lose weight
What is usually involved?
  • Depending on the type of drug, you take a pill 1 to 3 times a day or get a shot once a day.
  • You also try to make lasting changes in your diet and physical activity level.
  • You try to make lasting changes in your diet and physical activity.
What are the benefits?
  • Weight-loss medicines can help you lose a small amount of weight.
  • The weight loss that you see right away can motivate you to continue your healthy eating and exercising after the medicine is stopped.
  • If you lose weight, you may be less likely to have related health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Eating fewer calories while being more active may help you lose weight.
  • You avoid the risks and side effects of taking weight-loss medicines.
  • You avoid the cost of taking medicine.
What are the risks and side effects?
  • Possible side effects include:
    • Increased blood pressure.
    • Headache.
    • Sleep problems.
    • Unpleasant changes in bowel habits.
  • Unless you make long-term changes in your eating and exercise habits, you are likely to gain back the weight after you stop taking the medicine.
  • Weight-loss medicines can be expensive. They may not be covered by your health plan.
  • If you aren't able to lose weight using diet and exercise, you're more likely to have related health problems. These may include heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Personal stories

Personal stories about using medicine for obesity

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

"I was concerned about taking a weight-loss medicine. I was worried about those stimulant diet pills that people took years ago that had such a questionable reputation. But I've learned that some of the newer medicines are different. And after struggling to lose not even 5 pounds over the past 8 months, I am now ready to see if medicines can add anything to the good habits I've tried to establish. I know the medicine isn't going to be a magic bullet. But I hope it can give me that little extra help I seem to need."

— John, age 50

"I realize that I didn't gain my extra weight in just a few months. I don't expect to be able to lose it all quickly. I want to get back to eating a more balanced diet again and to set a good example for my kids so that they don't develop poor eating habits as they grow up. I plan to start taking them for walks and introducing them to lots of outdoor activities that we can do together. I don't want to be on pills for the rest of my life. I need a long-term solution."

— George, age 45

"My sister has been taking a weight-loss medicine for about 4 months now, and she has been on a low-fat diet. We have been walking together 3 times a week. She has lost about 10 pounds already. I don't think I've lost any weight yet, even though I have been watching what I eat, too. Maybe medicines can help me lose weight."

— Susan, age 42

"The side effects of Xenical sound pretty unpleasant to me. I have made a few changes in my diet, and I am walking twice a week. I'm going to give myself at least a year of a balanced diet and exercise before I think about taking a medicine."

— Carla, age 40

3. What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to take weight-loss medicine

Reasons not to take weight-loss medicine

I am desperate to lose weight, and I think medicine will help me.

I don't like the idea of taking medicine.

             
More important
Equally important
More important

I have tried diet and exercise, and I just can't seem to lose weight.

I want to keep trying diet and exercise before I start taking medicine.

             
More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about the cost of medicine.

I don't think I can afford the cost of medicine.

             
More important
Equally important
More important

I think losing a little bit of weight is worth the side effects of medicine.

I don't think the side effects are worth the small amount of weight I might lose by taking medicine.

             
More important
Equally important
More important

Along with taking medicine, I'm willing to work hard to make permanent changes in my eating and exercise habits.

Medicines aren't worth it to me if I'll just gain the weight back without permanent lifestyle changes.

             
More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

   
             
More important
Equally important
More important

4. Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Taking weight-loss medicine

NOT taking weight-loss medicine

             
Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

5. What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1. Weight-loss medicine is all I need to lose lots of weight permanently.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Medicine will probably help you lose just a small amount of weight. And unless you make permanent changes in your eating and exercise habits, you will likely gain back the weight after you stop taking the medicine.

2. I may suffer unpleasant side effects if I take weight-loss medicine.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
That's right. Side effects of weight-loss medicines include headaches, nausea, bowel problems, and increased blood pressure. Some people stop taking the medicine because the side effects are too unpleasant.

Decide what's next

1. Do you understand the options available to you?

2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

         
Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.

  • I'm ready to take action.
  • I want to discuss the options with others.
  • I want to learn more about my options.
 
Credits
By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Theresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy
Specialist Medical Reviewer Caroline S. Rhoads, MD - Internal Medicine

References
Citations
  1. Klein S, et al. (2011). Obesity. In S Melmed et al., eds., Williams Textbook of Endocrinology, 12th ed., pp. 1605–1632. Philadelphia: Saunders.

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