Ozempic for weight loss: Florida doctors issue strong warning for those looking to use drug to lose weight

A relatively new drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes has found popularity on TikTok by those who claim the drug helped with their weight loss goals. But, some doctors have a stern warning for those to use it for weight loss.

Sold under the brand name Ozempic, the FDA approved the diabetes treatment in 2017. It helps lower blood sugar, and patients who took is reported weight loss as a positive side effect.

"You definitely decrease your appetite, and you feel full pretty much all the time, and you don’t really crave sugar because you don’t get the sugar high or sugar low," said Dr. Richard Lehman, a sports orthopedic surgeon.

In 2021, the FDA approved the drug under a different name, Wegovy. This time, it was approved to help people dealing with obesity – BMI over 27 with at last one weight-related condition, or people with a BMI over 30 – to lose weight.

According to the FDA, the largest clinical trial showed people taking Wegovy lost an average of nearly 13% of their initial body weight.

That's led to those wanting to drop a few pounds here and there to find doctors willing to prescribe it to them "off label," to use for a condition other than for which it has been approved.

"It’s as close to the magic weight loss as we have right now," said Dr. Lehman. He's prescribed the drug to his athletes to help them drop a few pounds.

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"These athletes started in 7 to 10 days started to lose weight. You can’t just eat as much as you want and not exercise. You have to follow the regimen," he said.

However, doctors caution that the perceived benefits can be short-lived, especially if someone has an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise or health education.

 "They’re given something, and they’re promised that this will work. And sometimes it will because they believe it will. But what’s going to happen after that fact? You cannot be on a drug for the rest of your life," said Jeremy Avner, co-owner of Nuvia Medical Weight Loss Clinic in Lake Mary, Florida, whose clinic prescribes the drug to some of its patients.

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"I’ve never tried anything that’s been this effective before," one patient said. She said she receives an injection once a week and has lost 20 pounds in eight weeks.

"I have to buy new clothes and everybody at work is coming up to me and telling me how great I look," she said.

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Dr. Ben Kaplan, a primary care physician at Orlando Health and treats patients with diabetes and obesity, said the drug is supposed to be used for weight loss in a high-risk group of patients and not for people outside that group looking to shed pounds here and there. 

"The buyer beware type scenario. Patients who are taking these medications off-label, for the wrong use, for let’s say recreational purposes essentially, they’re doing it at their own risk," he said, adding that other side effects include pancreatitis, gastro-intestinal issues, and gall bladder issues, among others.

"I’m definitely more of a proponent in patients who want to lose weight to sit down with a dietitian, an exercise physiologist, do things the right way. And then if they fail that initial therapy, then you can have a discussion about medication help with weight loss," Dr. Kaplan said.

It's also not an inexpensive drug to get.

Dr. Lehman said an injection once or twice a week could cost between $500 and $700. That will vary from clinic to clinic and insurance can sometimes cost the cost for people who quality, including for obesity, he said.