The good and the bad of taking Ozempic for weight loss

It is the personal angle, of Hari's fondness for junk food, struggles with obesity and trying Ozempic, narrated in the book that makes 'Magic Pill' relatable.
It is the personal angle, of Hari's fondness for junk food, struggles with obesity and trying Ozempic, narrated in the book that makes 'Magic Pill' relatable.


Scottish author and journalist Johann Hari talks about his new book, ‘Magic Pill’, and why new weight loss drugs like Ozempic leave him conflicted

Writer and journalist Johann Hari, 45, first heard of Ozempic, the controversial diabetes-turned-weight loss drug, at a Hollywood party in 2022. “Going to the party, I was curious to see if Hollywood stars, like most people in the world, had gained weight during covid-19. I arrived and it was really weird," recalls Hari talking to Lounge over the phone from London, about his new book, Magic Pill: The Extraordinary Benefits and Disturbing Risks of the New Weight-Loss Drugs. “It was not just that they had not gained weight, everyone was gaunt. Everyone looked like their own Snapchat filter,’" he says.

Also read: Can two cups of curd a week help keep ‘sugar’ at bay?

This anecdote serves as the perfect introduction to the book as well, hooking you enough to go on a pacy ride alongside Hari who investigates the new weight loss drugs that have become every celebrity’s favourite tool. They are Oprah-approved, no less. Yet, health experts remain divided on whether they are completely safe.

“These drugs cause extraordinarily high levels of weight loss. An average person using Ozempic loses 15% of their body weight. In the next iteration of this class of the drug, Mounjaro, the average person loses 21% of their body weight. And the next one that will be available next year, Retatrutide (triple G), will help people lose 24% of their body weight," says Hari about what sets this class of drugs apart from other diet pills that have come before. And yet, while the benefits seemed obvious, there were a number of other questions that left him conflicted enough to warrant going on a world-wide investigation. “From Iceland, to Minneapolis to Tokyo, [I travelled] to interview over 100 of the leading experts to really dig deeply into the research around these drugs," says Hari who started taking Ozempic in early 2023, and continues the habit.

“So many men on both sides of my family have got heart disease and I have been in and out of obesity all my adult life. For me, the benefits to the heart outweighed the risks of the drugs and so it was a fairly easy decision for me," he says about what pushed him onto the bandwagon of these ‘GLP-1 agonists’ (the term used to define these new weight loss medications that mimic the GLP-1 hormone that helps reduce food intake and appetite).

There was an element of vanity, too, he admits before describing the initial days of taking the medication as ‘strange’. “Two days after I started taking Ozempic, I woke up and I thought something felt strange. It took me five minutes to realise that I had woken up and I wasn’t hungry, which was never the case before," he laughs.

Book cover of Magic Pill—The Extraordinary Benefits and Disturbing Risks 
of the New Weight Loss Drugs, by Johann Hari, 336 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699, Bloomsbury.
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Book cover of Magic Pill—The Extraordinary Benefits and Disturbing Risks of the New Weight Loss Drugs, by Johann Hari, 336 pages, 699, Bloomsbury.

It is this personal angle — of his fondness for junk food, struggles with obesity and trying Ozempic — contained within the pages that makes Magic Pill relatable. Hari hopes that his own journey with the medication would make the book more personable to the reader. “(Obesity) is a subject where people feel so much shame, and they really feel like they have failed if they are overweight. So, I hope hearing someone think the issue through helps them," he says. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Q. Would you say that one of the issues you are conflicted about is that the existence of these weight loss drugs undermines body positivity. Do you think this one’s going to continue to be an open- ended debate for a long time to come?
This was one of the (issues) I really wrestled with. One of the difficult moments for me in the writing of the book was a conversation I had with my niece, Erin, one day. I was Face-timing her and she was joking and saying things like, ‘Oh, you’ve lost so much weight’, ‘I didn’t know you had a neck’. I was sort of preening and glad that I had lost weight and then, she suddenly looked down and said, ‘Can you get me some Ozempic?’ She is 19 and of completely normal weight. I realised that she was not joking and that’s when I wondered if I’d contradicted every message I have ever given her.

Coming to the question, I think there are two categories of people. One category is people who are obese and there’s a strong case for many of them to take these drugs, because the truth is that being overweight causes all sorts of terrible health problems from diabetes to dementia, cancer and heart disease. Taking these drugs to bring yourself down to a healthy weight can improve your health and reduce those risks. Then, you’ve got a different category of people who are already at a healthy weight, or are skinny, who are taking them to become even thinner. I am not judging them, but we need to understand that that’s actually endangering their health. And that’s because when you take these drugs, you often lose muscle mass, which could cause big problems later in life.

Q. What would you tell anyone curious to try these drugs when they become more freely available?
My advice is you should very carefully weigh the benefits and risks of these drugs. The best comparison for the health improvement these drugs can give you if you are obese is to look at bariatric surgery. It is a horrible operation, and with one in 1,000 people dying in the operation, it’s grim. But if you survive it, you get extraordinary health benefits. In the seven years that follow the operation, you are 56% less likely to have a heart attack, you are 60% less likely to die of cancer and you are 92% less likely to die of diabetes-related causes. Now, the evidence is growing that these drugs move you in the same direction. For example, if you take these drugs with a BMI (body mass index) of more than 27, your risk of having a heart attack or stroke goes down by 20%. So, I would say to someone, look for the benefits but also weigh them against the risks. And there are significant risks associated with these drugs.

Q. Any risk you’d care to elaborate on…
One thing that worries me is that we don’t know the long-term effects of these drugs. We know that if you give these drugs to pregnant rats, they are more likely to give birth to deformed foetuses. We know that these drugs massively increase thyroid cancer in rodents, and some scientists believe they increase that risk in humans as well. I am worried about people with eating disorders getting hold of these drugs. That said, I think anyone who’s giving you simplistic advice by saying either ‘Yay! take the drug’ or ‘Boo! the drugs are evil’ is missing the point. There’s a more complex and important conversation in the middle.

There will be people reading your article thinking ‘Well, these drugs are not for me’. But you know, Barclays Bank commissioned Emily Field, a sober-minded financial analyst to investigate the implications of these drugs for their future investment decisions. She came back and said, ‘if you want a comparison for what these drugs are going to mean, you are going to think of the smartphone. This is going to transform the society around us in really complicated ways.’ And I think she is right.

Also read: How weight loss drugs are changing the diet and fitness industry


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