Are weight-loss drugs worth trying? From the December 2015 Harvard Women's Health Watch

Published: December, 2015

Obesity is now considered more than a risk factor for other conditions; it's a disease in itself. Like other diseases, obesity — which now affects 38% of Americans — has been the subject of intense scientific and medical research to develop effective treatments. Four new drugs approved by the FDA since 2012 have added to the options for treating obesity.

Dr. Lee Kaplan, who directs the Obesity, Metabolism, and Nutrition Institute at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, says, "We now have six FDA-approved drugs, but that is a tiny percentage of the number available to treat hypertension and other chronic diseases, so we need even more options to treat obesity most effectively."

Like older medications, the new drugs — Qsymia (phentermine and topiramate), Belviq (lorcaserin), Contrave (naltrexone and bupropion), and Saxenda (liraglutide) — are best used as part of a comprehensive weight-loss program that includes close monitoring by an experienced physician. The approved drugs are meant for people with a BMI higher than 30, or for people whose BMI is 27 or higher and who have other conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, joint problems, or sleep apnea, which can often be alleviated by losing weight. You can calculate your BMI at

Many of the newer drugs are combinations of medications that already have track records in treating other conditions. The weight-loss medication you start with might depend on whether you have any of the following:

  • Type 2 diabetes. Saxenda, an injectable medication that is also used to treat diabetes, might be a good choice to help with weight loss.
  • Migraines. If you suffer from these headaches, don't have heart disease or high blood pressure, and aren't trying to get pregnant, Qsymia may work for you. One of its components, topiramate, is also used alone (under the brand name Topamax) to treat migraines and seizures.
  • Depression. Contrave is a combination of naltrexone (used separately as an addiction treatment under the name Vivitrol) and bupropion, which is commonly prescribed for depression and help with smoking cessation (under the names Wellbutrin and Zyban).

Read the full-length article: "Are weight-loss drugs worth trying?"

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.