Girl with Green Pinafore

Sensational Headlines, Trivializing Obesity

It’s a fact. Media needs your attention. Thus, journalistic standards live in in tension with the temptation for sensational headlines that trivialize a subject like obesity. We’ve seen it before. Yet the current crop of sensational headlines offering a twisted understanding of serious new obesity treatments is especially disappointing. Here’s an example from the supposedly sensible Guardian newspaper:

The truth behind the weight loss drug that makes food repulsive

Reporting in this vein has has been abundant lately. Insider has a headline telling us that semaglutide makes people disgusted by their favorite foods. To back this up, they offer an anecdote about someone who finds themselves wanting a kale salad instead of a fried chicken sandwich for lunch. Horrors!

Turning to the Facts

In some ways, this is a dog-bites-man story. Seriously, where is the news value in the fact that an obesity drug does one of the things it is supposed to do – reduce cravings for food? This is, by and large, a desired effect.

Early on in clinical studies of semaglutide, it was apparent that effects on cravings and food preferences were among its helpful effects. In a study published five years ago, John Blundell and colleagues concluded:

“Likely mechanisms for semaglutide-induced weight loss included less appetite and food cravings, better control of eating and lower relative preference for fatty, energy-dense foods.”

A recent review article by Mojca Jensterle et al suggests that GLP-1, the target of semaglutide, “is specifically involved in the perception of sweet.”

It makes perfect sense for anyone seriously pursuing treatment for obesity to think about how their feelings about food might change. This is not a subject to sensationalize. Rather it is a potentially constructive part of the process.

Paying Attention to Nausea

The desired effect of less food craving should not be confused with the primary adverse effect that people may experience with semaglutide – nausea. Some people simply can’t tolerate it. In clinical trials 1.8 percent of patients receiving the drug stopped taking it because of nausea. Another 1.2 percent stopped it because of vomiting. But this is a small portion of people who experienced any nausea while taking it. In all, 44 percent of the patients in clinical trials reported ever having nausea.

So it’s important to understand that nausea can be a side effect and most people can get past it. One of the ways that prescribers deal with this is to start with a low dose and back off from doses that a patient cannot tolerate.

Trivializing Obesity Treatment

These absurd headlines about disgust with food are annoying for one simple reason. They trivialize obesity treatment and subtly mock it. It’s not so different from the headlines about Ozempic in Hollywood or the biggest-loser genre of reality television.

Perhaps this, too, is a matter of taste. But we have no appetite for sensational reporting that trivializes obesity and its treatment.

Click here for the study by Blundell and here for the review by Jensterle.

Girl with Green Pinafore, painting by Egon Schiele / WikiArt

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November 16, 2022