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Do Weight-Loss Drugs Really Help Teens?

November 27, 2023

Obesity affects nearly a quarter of 12- to 19-year-olds in the United States. The health implications of carrying so much extra weight are so significant that scientists have been searching for medical solutions to supplement healthy diets and exercise.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved semaglutide in December 2022 as a treatment for teens with obesity after it had become popular with adults. Then in January, in its new childhood obesity treatment guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that doctors consider adding weight-loss drugs as a treatment for some patients.

Now, a year later, parents are asking: Does semaglutide help obese teens lose weight?

How Semaglutide Works

Semaglutide works by mimicking a hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), which targets an area of the brain that regulates hunger. By controlling blood sugar spikes and lowering blood sugar, as well as reducing appetite and cravings, energy levels are more consistent. Unlike some other weight-loss medications, semaglutide does not behave as a central nervous stimulant to reduce appetite. Instead, it is used by multiple organs in unique ways to produce weight loss.

Is My Child a Candidate?

The FDA has approved semaglutide for teens who have:

  • A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater
  • A BMI of 27 or greater who also have other health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol, that make weight loss important

In addition, the doctor will consider whether your child already has tried a healthy diet and exercise without significant weight loss. The doctor also may look at whether your child is motivated to stick with a healthy lifestyle while taking the medication, has access to proper nutrition and has support from family or community.

Benefits of Semaglutide

Obesity in childhood and adolescence is associated with many serious complications, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease, dyslipidemia, Type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and obstructive sleep apnea, as well as reduced quality of life.

A study of semaglutide published in July shows that 45 percent of teens who took the medication lost enough weight to drop below the clinical cutoff for obesity, meaning they moved to a normal weight or were in the overweight category. These teens greatly lowered their risk of many obesity complications. That’s significant to their health.

Drawbacks of Semaglutide

Gastrointestinal problems are the most common side effects because semaglutide can slow down your child’s digestive system. Some teens have experienced:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Indigestion
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Gastroparesis
  • Pancreatitis

Another concern parents have is whether their children will have to stay on semaglutide for the rest of their lives or risk gaining the weight back. This is most likely true. You will regain the weight if you don’t change your eating habits. We don't know the answer to this yet. The goal is to help your child achieve a normal weight, get firmly established in a healthy lifestyle and then stop the medication.

Finally, semaglutide is expensive if your health insurance does not cover it. However, your care team may be able to help you apply for assistance from the manufacturer.

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