5 Things to Know About the Future of Obesity Medicine

As more and more treatments for obesity become available, what does the future hold for these patients? Here are five things that clinicians need to know.

1. Public health officials will prioritize dietary quality over quantity.

Beverly Tchang, MD

Dietitians, healthcare providers, and scientists are already prioritizing the quality of calories, and now policymakers are aligning with this goal, with calls for more research on ultraprocessed foods (UPFs) to answer the key question, “Why do UPFs cause people to eat 500 more calories per day compared with unprocessed foods?” The food industry has taken notice of the potential “Ozempic effect” associated with reduced spending on groceries and is responding with product lines “designed to complement” glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists (GLP-1 RAs) while simultaneously lobbying against any UPF reform. However, with emerging data on how sugar taxes may reduce sales and Congress honing in on the diabetes epidemic, we are hopeful that change is coming in 2024.

2. Antiobesity medications will target fat loss instead of weight loss.

Currently, the US Food and Drug Administration requires antiobesity medications to prove safe weight loss of ≥ 5% over placebo. The focus on weight has been long-standing, but with highly effective medications like tirzepatide causing about 20% weight loss, attention is shifting to body composition — namely, how do we optimize fat loss while preserving muscle? We are seeing this transition in the research community. Bimagrumab, for example, a once-monthly injection that increases muscle mass and decreases fat mass, is being tested in a phase 3 clinical trial alongside semaglutide. Agents initially designed for spinal muscular atrophy, like apitegromab and taldefgrobep alfa, are being repurposed for obesity. Watch for results of these phase 2 trials in 2024.

3. Increasing energy expenditure is the holy grail of obesity research.

The success of GLP-1 RAs, and the even greater success of dual- and triple-target agents like tirzepatide and retatrutide, tells us that obesity is, indeed, a hormone problem. These medications primarily cause weight loss by suppressing appetite and reducing caloric intake. As scientists develop more therapeutics to normalize appetite regulation, attention will shift to optimizing energy expenditure. Researchers are already investigating brown fat, mitochondrial uncouplers, and skeletal muscle metabolism, but no agent thus far has been proven to be both safe and effective in increasing energy expenditure. Of these, keep an eye on clinical trials involving brown fat and the excitement over the anti-inflammatory cytokine growth differentiating factor 15 (GDF15).

4. Chronic disease without chronic medications.

Obesity is a chronic disease, just like hypertension or diabetes. Similarly, medications that treat chronic diseases are expected to be taken long-term because discontinuation often results in disease recurrence. However, obesity research is getting closer and closer to options that require less frequent administration. Bimagrumab, for example, is a once-monthly injection. In endocrinology, the premier example is osteoporosis: Osteoporosis can be treated with just 3 years of an annual injection and never require treatment again. In obesity, anticipate more basic science discoveries aimed at developing safe and specific treatments that are truly disease-modifying — ones that reverse appetitive dysregulation, reduce proinflammatory adiposity, and optimize anabolic metabolism.

5. Barriers to access are barriers to progress.

The biggest challenge to obesity treatment today is access: drug shortages, medication costs, and lack of obesity medicine providers. Shortages of medications like semaglutide 2.4 mg are being driven by high “demand”; in other words, manufacturers failed to anticipate the massive interest in antiobesity medications.

Medicare and most state Medicaid programs don’t cover these medications; commercial payers are refusing, reversing, or limiting coverage. An out-of-pocket monthly cost over $1000 limits affordability for the majority of Americans.

Seeking care from an obesity medicine doctor is a challenge as well. Over 40% of US adults have obesity, but less than 1% of doctors are certified in obesity medicine. Meanwhile, private equity is eager to address the lack of access through compounding pharmacies, medispas, or telemedicine services, but the quality of care varies greatly. Some companies purposely avoid the term “patient,” preferring ethics-free labels like “consumers” or “members.”

The $100 billion–dollar weight loss industry unfortunately has created financial incentives that drive obesity commerce over obesity care. Because of these barriers, the epidemic of obesity, with a prevalence projected to be 50% by 2030, will not be solved or slowed despite the scientific progress in obesity treatment. A single silver lining exists among policymakers who are aiming to correct our costly sick-care system in steps, starting with pharmacy benefit manager reform. Five of these bills are the ones to track in 2024: Pharmacy Benefit Manager Reform Act; Pharmacy Benefits Manager Accountability Act; Pharmacy Benefit Manager Sunshine and Accountability Act; Pharmacy Benefit Manager Transparency Act of 2023; and Lower Costs, More Transparency Act.

I believe that these five things will have the most impact on the treatment of our patients with obesity. Stay tuned throughout the year as I share updates in obesity research, pharmacotherapy, and public policy.