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To the Point: What Do We Really Know about Ozempic and Wegovy?

Department of Health Studies’ Dara Ford answers our question of the week

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To the point logo and Ozempic injection pens. To the Point provides insights from AU faculty experts on timely questions covering current events, politics, business, culture, science, health, sports, and more. Each week we ask one professor just one critical question about what’s on our minds.

It seems like Ozempic has taken the nation by storm, from news stories about celebrities shedding pounds, to studies on its astounding health benefits.  

Ozempic and Wegovy (and Saxenda, and Zepbound) are all brand names for semaglutide, a class of drugs initially developed to manage blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetics. Semaglutides also demonstrated one highly desirable side effect – weight loss – which has led to its popularity, along with shortages for diabetics, the patients who need it most.

Most recently, a series of studies have suggested that semaglutide also reduces heart attacks and strokes in people without diabetes, and may even protect against memory loss, dementia, Parkinson’s, addiction, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and more.  

What should we know about this seemingly miracle drug? Are these claims true? Are they too good to be true? Are there any dangers on the horizon? We turned to Department of Health Studies Professorial Lecturer Dara Ford for some answers. Ford is the co-director of American University’s Master’s of Science in Nutrition Education.

What do we know so far about the potential of these drugs, and are there any dangers that we know about at this time?  

Semaglutides are a type of drug that was first approved nearly 20 years ago to treat Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM). In patients with both T2DM and a high risk of cardiovascular disease, the use of semaglutides paired with diet and exercise decreased the risk of cardiovascular mortality and nonfatal heart attacks and strokes. Recently Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer of the semaglutide Ozempic, shared that Ozempic may reduce the risk of chronic kidney disease in individuals with T2DM. Semaglutides have also been known to impact weight loss.  

Because of this, other drugs within the same class, such as Wegovy, Saxenda, and Zepbound, were developed to be used in patients classified as having obesity based on BMI to promote weight loss. Excess body fat may increase the risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension. For some, these drugs may improve health outcomes when used in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise.

Given their potential to drive weight loss in patients, these drugs are being positioned socially as quick fixes. They are not. They are intended to be used indefinitely and under clinical supervision by individuals who meet specific medical criteria.

These drugs are part of an important treatment plan for some patients with obesity, but they are not without risk. Users have reported significant side effects, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and pain. Some may find it difficult to eat, leading to nutrient deficiencies. There have been rare reports of stomach paralysis, pancreatitis, and bowel obstruction. And when use of the drug stops, any lost weight is often regained.

As the popularity of semaglutides exploded over the last few years, so too has their inappropriate use. Individuals who do not meet clinical criteria for prescription have been accessing the drug through off-label use. The popularity of these drugs continues to rise driving up the cost and creating barriers for individuals with diabetes who need the medication. As with all pharmaceuticals, these drugs should be used as intended, under physician supervision, with an understanding of the risks and benefits to the individual.

About Professor Dara Ford

Dara FordDara Ford is the Program Co-Director, Master's of Science in Nutrition Education, and a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Health Studies. Ford became a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist after completing her undergraduate degree in Nutritional Sciences and then sought to complete her doctoral work. While earning her PhD at Penn State University, Ford explored the relationships between health-related quality of life and mortality outcomes in an elderly population. She also contributed to the development of a tool used to evaluate diet quality in this population. This research fueled her desire to work with future educators, to improve quality of life through nutrition education, with an emphasis on scientific rigor. Ford has a decade of teaching experience in both in-person and online settings, at the undergraduate and graduate level, and enjoys working with students in the classroom and beyond.