In May 2022, Kim Kardashian made headlines by wearing that Marilyn Monroe dress to the annual Met Gala. She claimed that putting herself on a strict carb- and sugar-free diet for three weeks allowed her to lose the 16lbs required to fit into the dress. Rumours later began to circulate, however, that she’d been using a mystery weight-loss drug (which she’s since hit back at).
That drug is Ozempic. A once-weekly medicine for adults with type 2 diabetes, it’s usually prescribed to improve blood sugar and reduce the risk of major cardiovascular events.
Whatever Kardashian did, Ozempic – labelled “the worst-kept secret in Hollywood” – has become a standard part of “grooming rituals” before large celebrity events, with A-listers from Elon Musk to American TV host Chelsea Handler admitting to using the drug.
Back in October, Musk told his 116 million Twitter followers that the semaglutide — sold under a number of brand names including Ozempic and Wegovy — was behind his recent slim-down. After a fan wondered what was behind Musk’s dramatic weight loss, the owner of Twitter replied with a two-word answer: “Fasting” and “Wegovy”.
“Celebrities say they lost weight by drinking water, but really it’s because everyone’s on Ozempic,” Handler stated at the Critics’ Choice Awards in January 2023, adding that the drug didn’t work for her.
Like her sister, Khloé Kardashian has also had to face claims of using it – claims she publicly rejected on social media. “Let’s not discredit my years of working out,” she replied to a speculatory comment on Instagram. “I get up five days a week at 6am to train. Please stop with your assumptions.”
Predictably, the hashtag #Ozempic has over 470 million views on TikTok, with thousands of users sharing their “Ozempic journeys” – stitching together weight-loss timelines. It’s not surprising that yet another example of a celebrity weight-loss fad has infiltrated into wider society. And while that’s problematic in terms of diet culture and body image, this Ozempic obsession is downright dangerous for those of us living with diabetes.
Why the rush on Ozempic is affecting diabetics
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in August 2015, when I was 17. Before getting that diagnosis, I’d endured traumatic weight loss to such an extent that my friends and family started to ask questions.
That dramatic weight loss wasn’t liberating, and it wasn’t sexy: my body was eating itself up because my pancreas had stopped producing insulin – a hormone that helps blood sugar to enter cells so that it can be used for energy. I was becoming increasingly skeletal because my body had started burning fat and muscle for survival.
So, when I first read about the Ozempic “weight-loss trend”, I was horrified. But it wasn’t just shock at the desperate lengths people are willing to go to conform with current beauty standards, but rather the fact that Ozempic overuse has now resulted in a country-wide shortage of the drug in the US. Demand is currently so astronomical that type 2 diabetics in need of this medication can’t get hold of their prescriptions.
What is Ozempic, or Wegovy, and how does it work?
The drug suppresses the hunger signals to the brain, resulting in a decrease in appetite. It slows down the emptying of food contents in the stomach, maintaining a feeling of fullness for longer, and stimulates the release of insulin from the pancreas, which helps the absorption of sugar into cells.
Ozempic also subdues the production of glucagon, a hormone that typically causes the blood sugar levels to increase. All of these functions together create a significant reduction in blood glucose levels and evoke subsequent weight loss with little to no lifestyle or dietary changes.
The dangers of Ozempic
It sounds easy, right? But let’s be real: abusing (and it is abusing if you don’t need it) Ozempic can be incredibly dangerous. It can cause gastrointestinal problems – commonly seen in people taking higher doses of the medication – as well as hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose), kidney damage, pancreatitis and gallbladder problems. Celebrities and, increasingly, normal people might be taking it for short-term gain, but it wields the potential for harmful, long-term side effects for heart disease, liver problems or damage to eyesight.
Dr Semiya Aziz is a GP and has worked in both private and NHS practices in north London for almost two decades. She explains that, in the USA, the FDA approved the use of semaglutide – under the brand name of Wegovy – in 2021 to aid significant weight loss. However, this later led to shortages.
“Wegovy was introduced at a much higher dose compared to Ozempic. Usage of this drug for weight loss was based on certain guidelines, which included BMI and ethnicity,” Dr Aziz tells Stylist. “Unfortunately, high demand for the drug resulted in the decreased availability of this brand and as a consequence many people have been turning to the use of Ozempic for weight loss. This, in turn, has interfered with the availability of the drug for those with type 2 diabetes.
“The additional problem with this drug is that semaglutide is not for short-term use only and has to be used on a long-term basis. This has made demand for this drug even more fierce,” continues Dr Aziz.
In December 2022, pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk reported that it was experiencing shortages of Ozempic, remarking that its use for weight loss had exacerbated the existing supply chain issues. It added that it did not “promote, suggest or encourage” off-label use of its medicines.
In the US, these shortages continued into January 2023. One pharmacy in Pennsylvania reported a huge increase in demand for Ozempic as a result of the Wegovy shortages, with prescriptions almost doubling across a three-month period.
The average monthly cost for an Ozempic prescription is $730 (£592). While wealthy weight-loss devotees spend money on drugs they don’t medically need, more than one million Americans with diabetes are forced to ration their insulin because it’s prohibitively expensive.
“Many individuals unfortunately want a desperate quick fix for weight loss and will do anything within their means to obtain this ‘wonder drug’ – be it by prescription from a private clinic or off the black market despite being unlicensed for weight loss or at the cost of depriving type 2 diabetics,” Dr Aziz adds.
If you went to your GP to ask for the drug and they did decide to prescribe it, you’d be advised on how to take it safely.
“In the UK, The National Institute for Healthcare and Excellence will always advise healthcare professionals regarding dosage, usage, monitoring and who should and should not be using these types of drugs,” Dr Aziz says.
Ozempic might be the latest weight-loss fad but for diabetics, it’s a life-saving necessity. Buying up supplies of a drug that’s needed to live a full life for an aesthetic goal is simply unethical.