December 1, 2023

Cate Collings, MD

A new generation of medications designed to help individuals lose weight is in the news and stirring considerable debate within medical, insurer, and employer circles. Indeed, these drugs show striking results compared with weight loss drugs of the past, with some research reporting a 15%-20% loss in body weight when used as an adjunct to intensive behavior therapy and intensive lifestyle intervention.

Obesity and associated chronic diseases are at an epidemic level in the United States and carry enormous personal, family, and societal burdens. As an exercise physiologist and a dual board-certified cardiologist and lifestyle medicine specialist, I am grateful for modern medicine and have leveraged the efficacy of many medications in patient care. I also recognize that it is in my patients’ and my own best interests to strive for health restoration rather than default to a lifetime of disease management. This is especially urgent when it comes to children.

That’s why as physicians we must not allow these new medications to overshadow an evidence-based comprehensive lifestyle approach — the first recommended treatment in most chronic disease care guidelines — as the optimal step toward achieving long-term health improvement.

As a matter of fact, too often lost in news stories about the success of obesity drugs like tirzepatide and semaglutide is that research study participants also received intensive lifestyle interventions. Regardless of whether clinicians ultimately prescribe weight loss medications, it is important that they first engage in patient-centered discussions that provide information about all the available treatment options and explore with patients an adequate dose of lifestyle intervention before pronouncing this approach a failure.

Merely advising a patient to eat better or exercise more is rarely sufficient information, much less sufficient dosing information, for significant weight loss. As a recent American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) position statement on the treatment of obesity put it: “While adequately dosed lifestyle interventions may unilaterally achieve success, obesity is a complex, multifactorial disease wherein patients may require approaches beyond lifestyle alone. However, lifestyle interventions are too often not adequately ‘dosed’ for success.”

Appetite suppression may reduce food intake, but optimal health requires eating nutrient-dense foods high in fiber and healthy fats, and preserving muscle mass through physical activity. Simply reducing the portion size of the same unhealthy, ultraprocessed foods that the patient ate before starting medication does not achieve optimal health, no matter what the scale says. ACLM’s position statement emphasizes that “a comprehensive lifestyle medicine approach prevents and treats many other co-morbidities associated with overweight and obesity, including, but not limited to, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis, and a lifestyle medicine approach can also reduce the risk of many types of cancer.”

This is even more critical in children, who may not fully understand how to eat healthfully. Furthermore, the long-term effects of weight loss medication on their still-developing bodies are unclear. Decades ago, we didn’t face an epidemic of childhood obesity; type 2 diabetes was called “adult-onset” because it was a lifestyle-related chronic disease that didn’t manifest until adulthood. We would never have considered weight-loss medications for children or gastric bypass for teens. Yet, this lifestyle-related chronic disease is now afflicting our youth.

We have allowed an abnormal food environment to fester, with nearly 60% of the American diet now consisting of ultraprocessed foods. Obesity within families may be related to shared genetics but may also be due to shared food, lifestyle, and environmental factors passed down through generations. A successful obesity treatment plan should address as many of those drivers of obesity as possible, as well as access to healthy food, transportation, and other social determinants of health.

Cost is a major consideration in clinical decision-making for weight loss treatment. The new obesity drugs are expensive, and patients probably must continue to take them throughout their lives to avoid regaining lost weight. With 70% of Americans and 90% of seniors already taking prescription drugs, the United States already spends more on pharmaceuticals than the rest of the world combined. Not all insurance plans cover these medications for the treatment of obesity, and as patients covered through one insurance plan may lose coverage on their next plan, they could be forced to stop the medications and pay out of pocket or experience fluctuations in their weight. Healthcare providers should consider the physical and emotional burden of weight cycling and strategically advance lifestyle measures to mitigate weight fluctuations in such patients.

Shared decisions between patients and their families and healthcare providers will become even more important in the rollout of new medications and obesity management guidelines. I’m hopeful that the elevated attention to obesity solutions will shepherd in thoughtful collaborations between board-certified obesity specialists, lifestyle medicine specialists, and primary care providers. ACLM, in support of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, has offered 5.5 hours of complimentary CE/CME coursework in nutrition and food as medicine to 100,000 health professionals. This free opportunity (valued at $220) is an excellent step toward establishing a foundation of lifestyle medicine knowledge for health professionals treating patients for obesity. Clinicians can register here.

Let’s all get this right: Lifestyle behavior is the foundation of patients’ health and wellness at every stage of life, with or without adjunctive medication therapy. New tools like weight loss medications will arise but cannot truly achieve optimal health without lifestyle medicine as a continuum throughout a patient’s life.

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