Ozempic Hurts the Fight Against Eating Disorders

Ozempic Hurts the Fight Against Eating Disorders

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Publish Date:
17 April, 2024
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It’s impossible to escape the soaring popularity of Ozempic and similar drugs these days—daily headlines, celebrity “success” stories, and apparent ease in procuring prescriptions (even Costco sells them now) abound. But the cumulative effect of all of this has many experts in the eating disorder field worried about how this might affect their patients. This makes sense—even for those without eating disorders, these drugs can feel both triggering and enticing. After all, research tells us about 90% of women are dissatisfied with their bodies. This sounds like a quick fix.

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Then, I started hearing reports—first anecdotal, then published—that some doctors were prescribing weight loss drugs like Ozempic to their patients with eating disorders. As in, to help treat them.

As a journalist who has extensively researched the harms of eating disorders and the barriers to recovery—and as a woman who had suffered from eating disorders on and off for much of my own life—I thought I must have misunderstood. Yes, we as a society are in the midst of Ozempic Fever—and by “fever,” I’m referring to excitement, rather than a possible side effect of the drug (which it is). Researchers are continuing to find new potential applications for these drugs, initially developed to treat type 2 diabetes. In March, the FDA approved a new indication for the weight-loss drug Wegovy (which has the same active ingredient as Ozempic), allowing it to be used as a treatment to reduce the risk for heart attack and stroke. Ozempic, a diabetes drug, used off-label for weight loss, is also being studied to treat anxiety and depression, polycystic ovary syndrome, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s, and now—eating disorders.

Read More: Ozempic Exposed the Cracks in the Body Positivity Movement

It’s early days and research hasn’t yet caught up with the enthusiasm. But our cultural misunderstanding of eating disorders, even by well-meaning practitioners, could exacerbate the illnesses for those who suffer from them—and have dire consequences.

The new class of weight loss drugs mimics the body’s GLP-1 hormone, stimulating insulin production, and lowering blood sugar levels, helpful to those with type 2 diabetes. The drugs also curb appetite and slow the speed that food moves into the small intestine—you feel full more quickly and eat less. Many patients without eating disorders who take these drugs, have reported a reduction of “food noise” in their minds—referring to obsessive thoughts and preoccupation with food. (Though, as philosopher Kate Manne wisely posited in a recent New York Times piece, isn’t “food noise,” simply, hunger?)

For folks suffering from binge eating disorder (BED) or bulimia nervosa (BN), a drug that decreases appetite may seem to make sense. Both illnesses are characterized by eating large amounts of food, eating until uncomfortably full, and feeling distress around that (bulimia is distinguished by purging after a binge).

Binge eating often emerges as part of a cycle of restriction—dieting, fasting, or eliminating entire food groups—like carbs, for example. “Many people struggling with BED view the binge episodes as the problem and the restriction as something to strive for,” said Alexis Conason, a psychologist specializing in the treatment of binge eating disorder. “When people with BED take a GLP-1 medication that dampens their appetite, many are excited that they can be ‘better’ at restriction and consume very little throughout the day.” Subsequently, Conason adds, there is a dangerous potential for BED to then morph into anorexia, starving oneself with possibly life-threatening complications.

Eating disorders are complex illnesses that aren’t yet fully understood, even by experts in the field. Underneath the behaviors around food is often an intricate web of trauma, anxiety, and even genetic predisposition, all set against the backdrop of a culture that prizes thinness. Low weight is frequently (incorrectly) conflated with good health, and people in larger bodies are often subjected to bullying, negative stereotypes, and discrimination in the workplace.

Read More: Ozempic Gets the Oprah Treatment in a New TV Special

Emerging research strongly supports that for many, eating disorders are brain-based illnesses and in most cases, there exists a co-morbidity like anxiety, mood disorders, or substance abuse.

“GLP-1’s can’t help someone deal with their stress, anxiety, [and] trauma-history,” said psychologist Cynthia Bulik, one of the world’s leading eating disorder researchers, and Founding Director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence of Eating Disorders. “All of that background distress—fundamental distress that might be driving the BED in the first place—is temporarily bypassed by removing the desire to eat.”

Nearly 30 million Americans with have an eating disorder in their lifetime, but only about 6% of those are medically diagnosed as “underweight,” according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. This means that a person may exhibit all of the diagnostic hallmarks of anorexia, for example, extreme restriction and even malnourishment, but still present as average weight or even overweight. They may even be told by a physician to lose weight, despite the fact that they are already going to dangerous extremes to chase that “goal.”

“We tend to think that everyone in a larger body with an eating disorder must have BED and everyone in a smaller body must have anorexia, but this couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Conason. “So many people with BED seek help in weight loss settings instead of seeking eating disorder treatment; many view the problem as their weight and think they need more help sticking to their diet” when in reality, an end to the restriction would more likely regulate their eating.

It’s much easier to get weight loss treatment than help for an eating disorder. There is no standard of care for eating disorders in this country and treatment is unregulated. While there are some promising, evidenced-based treatments (cognitive behavioral therapy for adults, and family-based treatment for children and teens), they don’t work for everyone. If a person is fortunate to be diagnosed and receive adequate treatment, relapses are common and full recovery can be elusive.

Further, these drugs are often intended to be taken for a person’s entire life. “When they go off the drug, or can’t access it due to supply problems, the urge to binge comes right back and they have not developed any psychological (or) behavioral skills to manage the urge,” she told me. Just like with a diet, any lost weight will likely be regained when a person stops taking the drugs. Weight fluctuations, themselves ,may increase a person’s risk of chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes, according to multiple studies.

“The focus on weight and erasing the desire to eat could indeed do harm,” cautioned Bulik. “The potential for abuse is high and will become higher with new preparations that don’t require an injection … Remember, these drugs are ‘for life.’ Stop them, and everything comes rushing back.”

The long-term side effects of GLP-1’s are not yet known. But the harms of eating disorders are: eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness (second only to opioid overdose). People with eating disorders are more likely to attempt suicide, and during COVID-19, emergency room visits and inpatient admissions for eating disorders at pediatric hospitals skyrocketed, particularly for young women. According to the CDC, emergency room visits for 12-17 year old girls who suffer from eating disorders doubled during the pandemic. Those numbers, as shown by recent studies, have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

An even greater concern is that the gaps in comprehensive care for eating disorders invite experimental, potentially harmful treatments and leave patients vulnerable. GLP-1’s may seem like a short-term “fix,” but they won’t graze the deeper issues nor will it diminish the eating disorder crisis in this country. And it is a crisis—every year, eating disorders cost the U.S. more than $65 billion.

I know too well that if a doctor advises their patient with an eating disorder “here’s something to make you eat less” most patients would happily oblige. That’s part of the pathology of the illness. It’s the eating disorder talking. Ideally, it wouldn’t be your doctor’s voice, too.