We’ve Had a Cheaper, More Potent Ozempic Alternative for Decades
New weight-loss drugs are getting all the hype, but bariatric surgery is still the “gold standard” for treating obesity.
The Ozempic craze shows no signs of slowing. Demand for the drug, popularly used for weight loss, is so monumental that it is already changing the diet industry and spurring a “marketing bonanza” among the dozens of telehealth start-ups that now prescribe it. A highly public ad campaign from one start-up, Ro, banks on the drug’s simple premise: “A weekly shot to lose weight.”
Never before has a weight-loss treatment been hyped this way and been able to deliver on its promise. Ozempic itself is technically a diabetes drug, but its active ingredient, semaglutide, has been approved by the FDA for weight loss under the brand name Wegovy, and can reduce a person’s body weight by up to 20 percent through a weekly injection. An even more powerful drug, known as tirzepatide, or Mounjaro, may soon be approved for weight loss, and a host of new medications are coming down the pipeline. All signs suggest that America is on the verge of a weight-loss revolution.
But for people with obesity, semaglutide isn’t even the most effective weight-loss treatment around—not even close. Bariatric surgery, which has existed for many decades, is still significantly more potent. This class of procedures, which, broadly speaking, reconfigure the digestive system so people feel less hungry and more full, is considered to be the “gold standard” for treating obesity, Holly Lofton, an obesity-medicine physician at NYU, told me. Most people experience weight loss of 50 percent and, with one procedure, up to 80 percent, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Despite the impressive abilities of the new crop of weight-loss drugs—and bold assertions that such drugs could someday replace surgery outright—several doctors told me that surgery will likely continue to be the top-line treatment for obesity, even as the medications improve. People may seek out treatment with the new drugs because they’re so popular, but “long term, there will be an increase in surgery,” Shauna Levy, a professor specializing in bariatric surgery at Tulane University School of Medicine, told me. The new drugs, however potent, may be less a revolutionary fix for obesity and more a powerful tool for treating it—one of many that already exist.
Unlike semaglutide, bariatric surgery, first introduced in the 1950s, took several decades to become accepted by the medical community. Initial attempts made people so sick that, at times, the surgery had to be reversed. The term bariatric surgery refers to several different procedures that reshape the gastrointestinal tract so that it absorbs fewer nutrients, holds less food, or both. These days, the most commonly performed surgery is called a Roux-en-Y, which shrinks the stomach to the size of a walnut—so people need less food to feel satisfied—and then reconnects it to the small intestine in a Y shape, rather than linearly. This gastric bypass lets food circumvent most of the stomach, leaving fewer opportunities for the body to harvest nutrients. In another common procedure, surgeons sculpt the stomach into a banana-size “sleeve” and toss the rest; another common type involves rerouting the intestines in a way that minimizes the area where calories can be absorbed.
But bariatric surgery does more than shrink gastrointestinal real estate. It exerts a less visible but equally powerful effect on the many different hormones that control hunger. Some procedures remove the part of the gut that produces the “hunger hormone,” ghrelin, while the rerouting of food through a Roux-en-Y ramps up the release of “incretin” hormones that create the feeling of fullness after eating.
In a sense, the new weight-loss drugs are essentially trying to re-create the effects of bariatric surgery: The success of these drugs is due to their ability to mimic the incretin hormones and get people to feel satisfied with less food. Semaglutide masquerades as the hormone GLP-1, whereas Mounjaro poses as both GLP-1 and GIP. But these are just two hormones; bariatric surgery “touches on multiple different hormones and different pathways” and, as such, is “more comprehensive,” Levy said. In one study, Mounjaro, considered the most powerful of the current crop of medications, led to 20 percent or more weight loss in 57 percent of people who took the highest dose—an impressive feat, but still a far cry from what is possible with surgery. Similarly, Ozempic and Mounjaro, both technically diabetes drugs, have powerful effects on blood-sugar levels over time, but many surgery patients “leave the hospital already in remission from their diabetes,” Levy said.
In addition to sheer potency, surgery is also much more affordable than these weight-loss drugs. Unlike the drugs, bariatric surgery is covered by Medicare if the patient meets certain criteria, including having a BMI equal to or greater than 35 and at least one comorbidity related to obesity. Many private insurers cover it too, albeit to varying degrees. Out of pocket, surgery costs $15,000 to $25,000—not cheap, but still cheaper than shelling out more than $1,000 a month indefinitely. “The patient must understand that they have to continue taking medication forever,” Lofton said. People who stop taking semaglutide generally regain the weight they lost. Lofton told me about one patient who had to forgo rent just to pay for the drugs: Factoring in insurance, “you can pay for three months of medicine and then have surgery at the same price.”
Neither treatment, of course, is without its potential downsides. Semaglutide can cause temporary but nasty side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea—and though it is considered safe for treating obesity, long-term data on this usage span just two years. Because many surgeries are done laparoscopically—using only tiny incisions—mortality is vanishingly low, and many patients go home after two or three days; full recovery usually takes four to six weeks. In the long term, complications such as hernias, gallstones, and low blood sugar can develop.
But there’s a reason bariatric surgery has not led to a weight-loss revolution of the kind that now gets associated with semaglutide. Despite its dramatic effects, and obesity’s prevalence across America, only 1 percent of people eligible for surgery actually get it. People hesitate for many reasons, medical and otherwise, but the most pervasive issue is a lack of awareness that surgery is even a safe or realistic option for weight loss. Bariatric surgery is plagued by stigma even within the medical community: In the 1990s, it was dismissed as a “barbaric” way to address an issue that, many believed, could be treated with diet and exercise. “There are a lot of primary-care doctors who are not talking enough about surgery” because they were trained with that old mindset, Levy said. It doesn’t help that bariatric surgery hasn’t exactly been a media sensation, with few high-profile patient advocates beyond Al Roker and Mariah Carey. In contrast, stories of celebrities on weight-loss drugs abound. Unlike surgery, semaglutide has the potential to be taken recreationally.
The advantages that surgery has over weight-loss drugs may change as the drugs become more potent and eventually cheaper. But for now, semaglutide won’t dramatically shift the way obesity is treated, doctors told me—in fact, these new drugs may act as a conduit to surgery itself. Levy predicts that their sheer popularity will trigger a brief dip in the bariatric-surgery rate, but as price remains an issue, and people with obesity are unable to reach their weight-loss goals on the drugs alone, “they may start opening their mind to surgery.”
Certainly, in some patients, weight-loss drugs alone could lead to lasting weight loss. And they can benefit those who are overweight but don’t qualify for surgery. But more widely, these drugs will likely be used in tandem with bariatric surgery to produce more dramatic, longer-lasting results, experts told me. “I don’t see this as an either/or,” Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity-medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told me. “I see it as surgery plus medicine.”
Drugs can help fill in any gaps that surgery leaves behind. Weight can rebound after a procedure, because the body has a way of rebalancing itself; hormones that were tamped down due to bariatric surgery, Stanford said, can “start to reemerge with a vengeance.” About a fifth of people, and perhaps even more, regain a significant amount of weight—15 percent or more—two to five years after surgery. All of the doctors I spoke with said that medication could be a powerful tool to prevent post-surgery weight rebounds—though to keep that weight off, the medication would still have to be taken in perpetuity. Stanford estimated that more than 90 percent of her patients are on weight-loss drugs after surgery—and not necessarily semaglutide; older medications often suffice. Drugs could also be used to help people prepare for surgery, Lofton said. Some doctors encourage patients to lose weight beforehand to decrease the risk of complications such as blood clots, heart attack, and infection.
Despite the hype, weight-loss drugs were never a perfect treatment for obesity. Neither is bariatric surgery, for that matter. “It is not a cure,” Lofton told me. A cure, she explained, would ensure that hunger doesn’t return and that fat cells don’t get bigger, a hallmark of obesity: “We have nothing that does that”—not even more potent next-gen drugs will provide a permanent fix. But the effect of combining surgery and medication could come close, she said.
That no cure for obesity exists is evidence of its complexity. All of the experts I spoke with pointed out that obesity has long been misunderstood as a failure of personal will, as laziness or gluttony. That misunderstanding has led to inadequate care: Many people who regain weight after a bariatric procedure are made to feel by their doctors like they “wasted the surgery,” even if human biology is to blame, Stanford said. Ozempic and other weight-loss medications frame obesity as a condition that can be treated with drugs—in other words, a disease. Patients on those medications may realize, “Hey, maybe it’s not just me being lazy this whole time—maybe there is science to it and an actual disease here,” said Levy. Collectively understanding obesity as an illness that exists alongside heart disease and cancer—diseases routinely treated with medication and surgery—instead of as a matter of personal inadequacy will have far more profound impacts on people with obesity than any drug alone.