In 1987, scientists discovered glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) that affects glucose metabolism. Later, a class of pharmaceuticals called GLP-1 agonists was developed for type 2 diabetics to help regulate blood sugar levels. It was discovered that they also decrease hunger and promote weight loss. But how does GLP-1 work for weight loss and who should try it? We examine those questions and more here.
What is a GLP-1 agonist?
Glucagon is a hormone produced in the pancreas. It helps regulate blood glucose (aka sugar) levels. GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide 1) is a hormone similar to glucagon. Your body releases GLP-1 when you eat, stimulating insulin secretion that stabilizes blood sugar levels and increases sensations of fullness. The net result is a reduced appetite and potentially weight loss.
GLP-1 agonists are a class of drugs developed to mimic GLP-1 and bind to GLP-1 receptors in the pancreas, nervous system, and elsewhere. This creates the same physiological response as the GLP-1 hormone to reduce feelings of hunger.
In simple terms, GLP-1 agonists are drugs that copy the action of the natural hormone GLP-1, helping your body make insulin, reducing the amount of glucose your body needs to make, and slowing down food digestion to reduce hunger effectively.
The development of GLP-1 agonists was a landmark development in the medical treatment of type 2 diabetes and weight loss.
How does GLP-1 work for weight loss?
By mimicking natural GLP-1, GLP-1 agonists make you feel less hungry, so you can eat less without feeling deprived. Your lower food and calorie intake results in weight loss. For type 2 diabetes patients, GLP-1 medications help regulate glucose or blood sugar spikes.
In practical terms, this means that patients on GLP-1 prescription medications, such as Ozempic or Wegovy, feel less hungry, eat less, and lose weight. According to research on the effects of semaglutide on appetite, many people report feeling full faster in addition to having less hunger. They also say they have fewer cravings and think of food less frequently.
GLP-1 drugs for weight loss
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), around 70% of American adults are either obese or overweight, and losing 5 to 10% of that body weight can reduce weight-related health risks, such as cardiovascular disease.
There are a variety of brand-name GLP-1 drugs for weight loss or the treatment of type 2 diabetes. These medications range in cost, dose, and clinical use. Following is a list of the current FDA-approved GLP-1 agonists being prescribed for type 2 diabetes and/or weight loss.
|For weight management in adults who are clinically obese or clinically overweight adults with weight-related health conditions.
Also sold under the brand name Mounjaro for the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
|Weekly 2.5 mg, 5 mg, 10 mg, or 15 mg subcutaneous injections
|Approved for weight management in adults who are clinically obese or clinically overweight with weight-related health conditions.
|Weekly 1.7 mg or 2.4 mg subcutaneous injections
|Approved only for type 2 diabetics to help control blood sugar levels and insulin production.
Used off-label for weight loss in people without type 2 diabetes.
|Weekly 0.5 mg, 1 mg, or 2 mg subcutaneous injections
|Approved for use along with diet and exercise to improve blood sugar in adults with type 2 diabetes.
Used off-label (with FDA approval) for weight loss in people without type 2 diabetes.
|One 7 mg or 14 mg oral tablet taken daily
Note that each of these medications is meant to be used along with lifestyle changes, including exercise and diet. Speak to a licensed medical provider for more details about these medications and to see if one is right for you.
Who should try GLP-1 agonists for weight loss?
If you’re wondering about trying a GLP-1 agonist for weight loss, start with a conversation with a medical provider. It’s important to note that these medications aren’t for everyone. GLP-1 agonists aren’t suitable for children under age 12, and those approved for the treatment of type 2 diabetes are not intended for those without type 2 diabetes. We look at other contraindications below.
If you’re overweight or obese, you may be a candidate for GLP-1 drug therapy. Being overweight is defined by a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, while obesity means you have a BMI of 30 or higher. BMI is determined by your weight in pounds divided by the square of your height in feet. The approved BMI for GLP-1 agonists is 27 or higher – see below.
Healthcare providers can prescribe GLP-1 agonists for patients in the following categories.
- A BMI over 30.
- A BMI of 27 or higher contributes to high blood pressure, cholesterol, or sleep apnea.
- Type 2 diabetics for whom the blood sugar medication Metformin is ineffective.
- Type 2 diabetics who can’t take Metformin.
- Type 2 diabetics whose hemoglobin A1C levels are high enough to present risks and haven’t responded to treatments.
- Patients with complicating conditions, such as heart failure, atherosclerosis, or chronic kidney disease, in addition to sustained high A1C levels.
If your provider prescribed a GLP-1 agonist for you, know that while it can decrease appetite and promote weight loss, your provider may take a comprehensive approach that also includes exercise, diet changes, behavioral modifications, or sometimes even bariatric surgery.
Contraindications to using GLP-1 agonists for weight loss
There are contraindications for GLP-1 agonist use. If you have the following conditions you shouldn’t take them. These include:
- Hypersensitivity to GLP-1 agonist drugs
- Previous history or current pancreatitis
- Family history of medullary thyroid cancer
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia syndrome type 2 (MEN2)
- End-stage renal (kidney) disease
- Gastroparesis or inflammatory bowel disorders
- Pediatric obesity
What are GLP-1 benefits and side effects?
There are multiple potential benefits of GLP-1, including weight loss and its associated health improvements. GLP-1s have been linked to decreased blood pressure, improved lipid panels, Reduced risk of fatty liver disease, and a reduced risk of heart and kidney disease.
These medications can also decrease diabetes-related health risks, such as diabetic neuropathy.
Potential side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and low blood sugar. Low blood sugar can be a more adverse or serious side effect, but your medical provider will monitor you. Research also indicates that people who take these medications are at increased risk of gastrointestinal events, such as pancreatitis, bowel obstruction, or gastroparesis.
The most common side effects are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. For most patients, these symptoms decrease or subside after two to three weeks.
Communicating with your healthcare provider is critical, so your provider can help manage and monitor any side effects.
What to expect if trying GLP-1 for weight loss
Factors, such as the type of GLP-1 medication you’re on, the amount or dosage prescribed, and your body’s unique response will affect your amount and rate of weight loss.
Remember that everyone’s body and medication tolerance are different. For those who are sensitive to medication, weight loss may happen quickly and side effects be more severe. For others, side effects may be minimal or none and weight loss slow down after an initial large loss.
According to research on semaglutide treatment, the average percentage of total body weight loss on a GLP-1 agonist is around 5.9% at 3 months and 10.9% by 6 months. Some patients on GLP-1 meds begin to lose weight right away, while others don’t start losing until the dose is increased.
Be prepared to feel less hungry, get full faster, and possibly be less attracted to food. For some patients, alcohol becomes less appetizing or makes them feel nauseous. Most people still feel hungry but experience less hunger.
Your provider will monitor you and your medication. If your weight loss levels off or slows down, your provider may change the dose or offer other suggestions. Most providers will encourage you to follow a healthy lifestyle through physical exercise and food planning in addition to prescribing medication.
Research on body weight in adults indicates combining medication with exercise and supportive counseling leads to the most effective outcomes.
How to get GLP-1
You can only get a GLP-1 agonist with a prescription from a licensed healthcare provider, such as a doctor, physician assistant (PA), or nurse practitioner (NP).
When you see a qualified provider, they’ll take your history, talk with you about your needs, concerns, and goals, and may also conduct an exam so that they can determine whether you’re eligible for a prescription and what the best next steps are.
Your eligibility for a GLP-1 agonist is based on your BMI as well as your medical history – such as if you have type 2 diabetes – and risk factors.
For insurance to cover a GLP-1 medication, most companies require a type 2 diabetes or heart disease diagnosis or a qualifying BMI. That still doesn’t guarantee coverage. Ask your health insurance company to find out what your plan may or may not cover. Know that many drug manufacturers offer discount programs. Visit the drug’s webpage to find out.
Be careful of products sold online. They may be made of inactive or unreliable ingredients. For safe, authentic medications, see a licensed provider and fill your prescription at a licensed pharmacy.
Are there natural alternatives for GLP-1?
It is possible to raise your GLP-1 using herbs. Research indicates that some foods and herbs can promote the body’s ability to produce natural GLP-1. Tea, curcumin, cinnamon, berberine, wheat, soybean, resveratrol, and gardenia are shown to influence GLP-1 secretion. Note that the results may not be as dramatic as with a GLP-1 agonist medication.
Always talk to your healthcare provider before starting a new diet or supplement. Your medical provider can help you make a safe and healthy plan for losing weight.
How to get help for weight loss support today
Feeling bad about your weight or stressed about your health is exhausting and can make you feel isolated. If you want to start a productive medication-managed approach to weight loss and need support, finding a licensed provider can help.
You can get started and search for providers on the Klarity platform. Whether you’re seeking a primary care doctor, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist, Klarity lets you find the care you need.
FAQs about how GLP-1 works
How do GLP-1s make you lose weight?
GLP-1 agonists make you lose weight by mimicking the body’s naturally produced GLP-1 hormone in the intestinal tract. This means your insulin levels are regulated, and you feel less hungry. Because of this, you eat less. Consuming fewer calories leads to weight loss. This outcome can be enhanced by combining GDP-1 drug treatment with healthy lifestyle changes, such as good nutrition and exercise.
How does someone qualify to use GLP-1 for weight loss?
Patients qualify for a GLP-1 by having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above, a BMI of 27 or higher with qualifying health complications, or having type 2 diabetes. A licensed medical provider must assess these criteria and decide whether to prescribe these medications to you or not.
Does GLP-1 speed up metabolism?
While GLP-1 causes a decrease in appetite and slows down the release of food from the stomach, it doesn’t significantly impact the rate of metabolism.
How quickly do you lose weight with GLP-1?
The amount of weight you lose and the rate you lose it at depends on several factors. These factors include the type of GLP-1 agonist medication you’re on, the dosage, diet, your activity levels, and drug sensitivity. Weight loss often begins within the first four weeks of medication use. However, everyone responds to GLP-1 medications differently.