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Treatments for Obesity

Updated on September 28, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Robert Hurd, M.D.
Article written by
Kelly Crumrin

Losing weight is difficult for many people. Keeping it off can be even harder. There are many approaches to losing weight, and no one approach is effective for everyone who tries it.

Types of Treatments for Obesity

Lifestyle changes — eating healthier and getting more exercise — are considered first-line therapy for obesity. Some people find commercial weight loss programs helpful. Several classes of medications can help promote weight loss. Bariatric (weight loss) surgery is effective at helping many people lose weight, while others try weight loss balloons.

Lifestyle Changes

Improving diet and increasing exercise are fundamental to weight loss.

Diet and Nutrition

Eating a lower-calorie, more nutritious diet can help you lose weight, feel better, control blood glucose, and keep cholesterol at healthy levels. Even small changes in what, when, and how much you eat can significantly affect your health. Replacing soft drinks with fruit-flavored water or high-calorie snack foods with fresh fruit or veggie snacks could provide significant results.

There are many different diets designed to help people lose weight. No one diet is effective or healthy for everyone trying to lose weight.

A nutritious diet for someone trying to lose weight is not very different from a healthy diet for other people. In general, focus your diet on fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, legumes, fish, low-fat dairy products, and sources of healthy unsaturated fats such as nuts and olive oil.

Exercise

For people trying to lose weight, increasing physical activity is one of the most important things you can do. In addition to burning calories, exercise can improve your mood, help you keep cholesterol and blood pressure in check, and prevent serious complications such as diabetes and heart disease from developing or growing worse. Even if you only lose a small amount of weight (perhaps to 10 percent to 15 percent of your ideal body weight), exercise is still highly beneficial for your health.

Regular exercise does not necessarily mean going to the gym or playing sports. Nearly any physical activity that gets you up and moving can provide significant benefits to those with obesity.

Commercial Weight Loss Programs

Commercial weight loss programs are a popular way to try to lose weight. Well-known brands include Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem, but there are many other programs available. Some programs involve eating branded, prepackaged meals that must be purchased from the company, while others allow you to eat any food you like but ask you to track points or calories.

Many commercial programs include an aspect of community support, counseling, or behavior change as part of their system. Depending on what works best for you, you can find a program that provides regularly scheduled group meetings, individual counseling, or online community forums.

Depending on your health conditions, some weight loss programs might provide too much or too little of the nutrients you need. Always check with your doctor before making significant changes to your diet.

Medications

Several prescribed medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help people lose weight along with diet and exercise. Most medications are indicated for people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, or for people with a BMI of 27 who have weight-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), or sleep apnea.

Adipex-P is a stimulant and an appetite suppressant. It is believed that Adipex-P works by reducing the perception of hunger. Desoxyn (methamphetamine) is another stimulant used to promote weight loss. Belviq (lorcaserin) and Lomaira (phentermine) are other appetite suppressants. Some drugs in these classes can be addictive and have multiple side effects.

Alli (orlistat) is sold over the counter. Alli is a lipase inhibitor that works by preventing your body from absorbing calories from fat in foods. Alli can cause fecal incontinence along with other side effects. Orlistat is also sold at prescription strength under the brand name Xenical.

Saxenda (liraglutide) is prescribed to treat both diabetes and obesity. Saxenda is an incretin mimetic that signals the pancreas to make more insulin and prevents the liver from releasing glucose. Saxenda can cause dizziness and upset stomach.

Contrave is a combination of two drugs, naltrexone and bupropion. Naltrexone is an opiate antagonist that decreases cravings, and Bupropion is an antidepressant that causes weight loss as a side effect. Common side effects of Contrave include headache, dizziness, and digestive upset.

Qsymia (phentermine/topiramate) is another combination drug composed of a stimulant/appetite suppressant and an antiseizure drug that causes weight loss as a side effect.

Other Treatments for Obesity

If diet, exercise, and medications have not resulted in weight loss, and your BMI is very high or you have serious obesity-related health conditions, your doctor may suggest trying a more invasive treatment. Bariatric (weight loss) surgery, a balloon system, or a vagal nerve blockade have been proven to help many obese people lose weight when other treatments were ineffective.

Surgeries

Some people with obesity undergo bariatric surgery such as gastric bypass (Roux-en-Y), adjustable gastric band (also known as the lap-band or LABG), or sleeve gastrectomy to lose weight. To be eligible for bariatric surgery, it is usually necessary to have a body mass index (BMI) over 35, or a lower BMI with medical complications such as poorly controlled diabetes. Bariatric surgery has been proven effective for weight loss and can reverse diabetes in many people, enabling them to control blood glucose without insulin or diabetes medication.

Any surgery carries risks including:

  • Blood clots
  • Blood loss
  • Infection
  • Breathing problems
  • Reactions to medication
  • Heart attack or stroke during the surgery

Weight loss surgery can cause reflux, incisional hernias, leaks, and bowel obstructions. After bariatric surgery, you must drastically change when and how much you eat and increase your exercise levels to avoid side effects. Some people experience poor food absorption in the intestines after bariatric surgery that results in nutritional deficiencies and symptoms such as gas, constipation, and diarrhea.

Balloon Systems

Obalon, Orbera, and ReShape are temporary balloon systems approved by FDA to aid weight loss in people with obesity above a certain BMI or with obesity-related complications. Balloon systems work by taking up space in the stomach, making the person feel full and causing them to eat less.

Each balloon system is a little different, but most are placed in the stomach by swallowing a capsule, then inflated. Most balloon systems are retrieved after a few months via endoscopy, which involves a flexible tube with a camera and tools on it being inserted down the throat.

Rare but serious side effects of balloon systems can happen if the balloon deflates, enters the intestines, and causes a blockage that requires surgery to correct.

Vagal Nerve Blockade

The vagal nerve carries messages of hunger from your digestive system to your brain. A vagal nerve blockade involves surgically implanting a small electrode onto the vagal nerve in the abdomen. The electrode is controlled externally and can be programmed by a doctor. A vagal nerve blockade is designed to be used for eight years. In addition to the risks of any surgery, vagal nerve blockade can cause pain, heartburn, and nausea among other symptoms.

After Major Weight Loss

If you lose a lot of weight quickly, you may develop significant amounts of loose skin. Some people feel embarrassed about the way the loose skin looks, and some choose to have plastic surgery to remove it.

Condition Guide

References

  1. Obesity — Mayo Clinic
  2. What Are the Treatments for Obesity and Overweight? — National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
  3. Obesity Treatment — UCSF Health
  4. Treating Obesity — Stanford Health Care
  5. Newly Approved Weight Loss Device Blocks the Vagus Nerve — EndocrineWeb
  6. Are Vitamin B-12 Injections Helpful for Weight Loss? — Mayo Clinic
  7. Weight Control — National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  8. Evaluation of Natural Product Compositions for Appetite Suppression — Journal of Dietary Supplements
  9. Mindful Eating May Help With Weight Loss — Harvard Health Publishing
  10. Financing Weight Loss Surgery — All You Need To Know — Bariatric Surgery

A MyObesityTeam Member said:

Slow and steady
You got this

posted 4 months ago

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Robert Hurd, M.D. is a professor of endocrinology and health care ethics at Xavier University. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Kelly Crumrin is a senior editor at MyHealthTeams and leads the creation of content that educates and empowers people with chronic illnesses. Learn more about her here.

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