Drugs such as Wegovy and Ozempic – used to treat type 2 diabetes but also unofficially to aid weight loss – are becoming easier to get, but what are the risks to our body and minds if they’re not used responsibly? With these drugs appearing in pharmacies and on darker parts of the internet, GLAMOUR investigates the dangers this poses to our health, body image and the people who use it to treat serious medical conditions.
The world of weight loss can be a toxic, all-consuming place. And expectations and pressures are becoming even more murkier and complex as weight loss injections become more and more accessible in the UK.
Two drugs that have been manufactured to facilitate weight loss are becoming increasingly popular online as quick-fix weight loss treatments. One of the drugs, Ozempic, became available in the UK in 2019, while the other, Wegovy, has, in September 2023, finally become available under prescription from the NHS, after months of delays caused by global demand.
Manufacturer Novo Nordisk has announced a “limited launch” of Wegovy that will allow access to patients using specialist NHS weight management services as well as private patients.
Trials found that overweight people taking Wegovy lost 15 per cent of their body weight. The weight-loss drug be prescribed for adults with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 35 and one weight-related health condition – such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
The jabs were made available on the NHS in 2021.
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Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Obesity costs the NHS around £6.5 billion a year and is the second biggest cause of cancer. This next generation of obesity drugs have the potential to help people lose significant amounts of weight, when prescribed with exercise, diet and behavioural support.”
Both Ozempic and Wegovy are injectable and contain an active drug called semaglutide, which reduces appetite. Medical practitioner Dr Hussain Ahmed tells GLAMOUR that both Ozempic and Wegovy are “incredibly effective drugs for weight loss”, and Ozempic is also beneficial for patients who suffer from diabetes.
“It increases the levels of hormones called incretins which helps your body to produce more insulin when it needs it,” he explains. “Ozempic also helps to suppress the amount of glucose your liver produces.”
The availability of drugs like these to treat serious health conditions is a privilege – but their usage isn’t stopping there. As access becomes easier, people are looking to the example of celebrities and influencers, who have been using them as a means of losing weight for “vanity” reasons, not to combat obesity or diabetes.
“Ozempic” as a search term has had over 1.5 billion views on TikTok, with influencers and regular users alike documenting their journey with the drug. Interest peaked after Elon Musk tweeted at the end of last year that “fasting and Wegovy” was behind his own weight loss.
Among other celebrities, Jameela Jamil recently posted on Instagram about the “potential harm” of these drugs being popularised, ending with the words: “hope you have doctors that care about more than your size.”
The experts break down how it works, what it treats, side effects, and more.
As the drugs have gained notoriety, many who have taken them – including influencer and curve model Remi Bader – began pointing out the big difference between taking these meds for your health and taking them for “vanity” reasons.
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“Taking Ozempic or Wegovy for ‘vanity’ weight loss without a valid medical reason puts you at risk,” nutritionist and weight loss specialist Milena Kaler tells GLAMOUR, stressing the importance of not taking these medications if you are a healthy weight – doing so “could contribute to the maintenance of unhealthy beauty standards, which can lead to issues with body image, and have a negative impact on your attitude towards losing weight.”
There is also evidence of these drugs being sold away from the doctor’s surgery and professional consultations. Reports say that semaglutide is available to purchase in the UK for cheap over Instagram, while US TV presenter and author Meghan McCain has spoken about being offered a “black market freebie” of Ozempic.
A recent i Newspaper report found that weight loss jabs including Ozempic, Wegovy and Saxenda are also listed for sale on the black market via Facebook, with some posters even shockingly offering used medicines to buyers.
“When it comes to getting cheap, or counterfeit versions of a drug, one thing you can't guarantee is consistency,” Michael Sam-Yorke, a clinician who prescribes Ozempic, tells GLAMOUR. “There have been horror stories of people being injected with something else that has become detrimental to someone's health as a result.”]
“When I first learned of the Ozempic trend, I felt sick to my stomach.”
Charlotte*, 35, has recently obtained Ozempic from an online pharmacy in the UK to help hit her weight loss goals. She has a BMI of 26, which just about puts her in the “overweight” category that may qualify her for treatment, but her prescription was possible without direct communication with a healthcare professional or disclosure of her BMI.
“I haven’t spoken to anyone or had communications with a person via email or video,” she tells GLAMOUR, explaining that she only had to fill out a questionnaire pertaining to details such as age, gender and ethnicity.
Michael stresses the vital importance of using these drugs with the guidance of a healthcare professional, due to the risks to your health that are posed if you don’t stick to the right dosing schedule.
The dangers aren’t limited to those who are taking these medications unsupervised. Pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk – which produces both Ozempic and Wegovy – have reported shortages of Ozempic in 2022, a situation that it admitted had been worsened by the drug being marketed as a weight loss treatment.
So this trend is not only impacting body image expectations, but also the people who need access to drugs like Ozempic to treat life-threatening conditions like diabetes.
Eating disorder charity Beat have also stated that misuse of these medications can “further entrench eating disorder thoughts and behaviours”.
“Seeing celebrities using drugs such as Ozempic and Wegovy to lose weight can make them seem glamorous and risk-free. However, these medications can have serious health consequences, particularly if you have an eating disorder or are vulnerable to one,” Tom Quinn, Beat's director of external affairs, says.
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“It is vital that people are aware of the dangers of abusing medication in order to lose weight and there should be more education on their effects. We'd urge anyone looking to use medication to lose weight to contact their GP or care team first.”
While both Ozempic and Wegovy are valuable medications for legitimate health concerns, their use – or misuse – for weight loss while discounting medical guidelines and professional help reflects a rather dangerous societal attitude towards body image.
“Our society still values thinness extremely highly and we’re willing to go to extreme measures to achieve it,” body confidence advocate Alex Light tells GLAMOUR.
“I hope that one day we can just trust ourselves to eat and allow our bodies to settle at a size they’re supposed to be. But currently, the thin ideal prevails, and the instant popularity of this drug is a testament to that.”