We’ve Had a Cheaper, More Potent Ozempic Alternative for Decades: New weight-loss drugs are getting all the hype, but bariatric surgery is still the “gold standard” for treating obesity.

“Ozempic itself is technically a diabetes drug, but its active ingredient, semaglutide, has been approved by the FDA for weight loss under the brand name Wegovy, and can reduce a person’s body weight by up to 20 percent through a weekly injection. An even more powerful drug, known as tirzepatide, or Mounjaro, may soon be approved for weight loss, and a host of new medications are coming down the pipeline. All signs suggest that America is on the verge of a weight-loss revolution.

But for people with obesity, semaglutide isn’t even the most effective weight-loss treatment around—not even close. Bariatric surgery, which has existed for many decades, is still significantly more potent. This class of procedures, which, broadly speaking, reconfigure the digestive system so people feel less hungry and more full, is considered to be the “gold standard” for treating obesity, Holly Lofton, an obesity-medicine physician at NYU, told me. Most people experience weight loss of 50 percent and, with one procedure, up to 80 percent, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

[..] These days, the most commonly performed surgery is called a Roux-en-Y, which shrinks the stomach to the size of a walnut—so people need less food to feel satisfied—and then reconnects it to the small intestine in a Y shape, rather than linearly. This gastric bypass lets food circumvent most of the stomach, leaving fewer opportunities for the body to harvest nutrients. In another common procedure, surgeons sculpt the stomach into a banana-size “sleeve” and toss the rest; another common type involves rerouting the intestines in a way that minimizes the area where calories can be absorbed.

But bariatric surgery does more than shrink gastrointestinal real estate. It exerts a less visible but equally powerful effect on the many different hormones that control hunger. Some procedures remove the part of the gut that produces the “hunger hormone,” ghrelin, while the rerouting of food through a Roux-en-Y ramps up the release of “incretin” hormones that create the feeling of fullness after eating.

In a sense, the new weight-loss drugs are essentially trying to re-create the effects of bariatric surgery: The success of these drugs is due to their ability to mimic the incretin hormones and get people to feel satisfied with less food. Semaglutide masquerades as the hormone GLP-1, whereas Mounjaro poses as both GLP-1 and GIP. But these are just two hormones; bariatric surgery “touches on multiple different hormones and different pathways” and, as such, is “more comprehensive,” [professor specializing in bariatric surgery at Tulane University School of Medicine Shauna] Levy said. In one study, Mounjaro, considered the most powerful of the current crop of medications, led to 20 percent or more weight loss in 57 percent of people who took the highest dose—an impressive feat, but still a far cry from what is possible with surgery. Similarly, Ozempic and Mounjaro, both technically diabetes drugs, have powerful effects on blood-sugar levels over time, but many surgery patients “leave the hospital already in remission from their diabetes,” Levy said. [..]

Out of pocket, surgery costs $15,000 to $25,000—not cheap, but still cheaper than shelling out more than $1,000 a month indefinitely. “The patient must understand that they have to continue taking medication forever,” Lofton said. People who stop taking semaglutide generally regain the weight they lost. Lofton told me about one patient who had to forgo rent just to pay for the drugs: Factoring in insurance, “you can pay for three months of medicine and then have surgery at the same price.” [..]

Despite its dramatic effects, and obesity’s prevalence across America, only 1 percent of people eligible for surgery actually get it. People hesitate for many reasons, medical and otherwise, but the most pervasive issue is a lack of awareness that surgery is even a safe or realistic option for weight loss. Bariatric surgery is plagued by stigma even within the medical community: In the 1990s, it was dismissed as a “barbaric” way to address an issue that, many believed, could be treated with diet and exercise. “There are a lot of primary-care doctors who are not talking enough about surgery” because they were trained with that old mindset, Levy said. ​​It doesn’t help that bariatric surgery hasn’t exactly been a media sensation, with few high-profile patient advocates beyond Al Roker and Mariah Carey. In contrast, stories of celebrities on weight-loss drugs abound. Unlike surgery, semaglutide has the potential to be taken recreationally.

The advantages that surgery has over weight-loss drugs may change as the drugs become more potent and eventually cheaper. But for now, semaglutide won’t dramatically shift the way obesity is treated, doctors told me—in fact, these new drugs may act as a conduit to surgery itself. Levy predicts that their sheer popularity will trigger a brief dip in the bariatric-surgery rate, but as price remains an issue, and people with obesity are unable to reach their weight-loss goals on the drugs alone, “they may start opening their mind to surgery.”

[..] Weight can rebound after a procedure, because the body has a way of rebalancing itself; hormones that were tamped down due to bariatric surgery, Stanford said, can “start to reemerge with a vengeance.” About a fifth of people, and perhaps even more, regain a significant amount of weight—15 percent or more—two to five years after surgery. All of the doctors I spoke with said that medication could be a powerful tool to prevent post-surgery weight rebounds—though to keep that weight off, the medication would still have to be taken in perpetuity. Stanford estimated that more than 90 percent of her patients are on weight-loss drugs after surgery—and not necessarily semaglutide; older medications often suffice. Drugs could also be used to help people prepare for surgery, Lofton said. Some doctors encourage patients to lose weight beforehand to decrease the risk of complications such as blood clots, heart attack, and infection.

Despite the hype, weight-loss drugs were never a perfect treatment for obesity. Neither is bariatric surgery, for that matter. “It is not a cure,” Lofton told me. A cure, she explained, would ensure that hunger doesn’t return and that fat cells don’t get bigger, a hallmark of obesity: “We have nothing that does that”—not even more potent next-gen drugs will provide a permanent fix. But the effect of combining surgery and medication could come close, she said.

That no cure for obesity exists is evidence of its complexity. All of the experts I spoke with pointed out that obesity has long been misunderstood as a failure of personal will, as laziness or gluttony. That misunderstanding has led to inadequate care: Many people who regain weight after a bariatric procedure are made to feel by their doctors like they “wasted the surgery,” even if human biology is to blame, [obesity-medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School Fatima Cody] Stanford said. Ozempic and other weight-loss medications frame obesity as a condition that can be treated with drugs—in other words, a disease.”

Full article, Y Tayag, The Atlantic, 2023.4.25