The choices we make are about so much more than weight loss.
This article originally appeared on TIME.com.
In a country obsessed with thinness, Ozempic is the latest in a long line of weight loss miracles. After its approval in 2017 to help manage blood sugar in Type 2 diabetics, news quickly spread that it also caused weight loss; fast-forward to 2023 and #Ozempic has over 300 million views on TikTok. Celebrities and influencers quickly jumped on the Ozempic bandwagon, and by now the drug has achieved mainstream appeal. So much so that Type 2 diabetics are struggling to access it due to its intense demand. According to Komodo Health, over 5 million prescriptions were written for Ozempic or the similar drug Mounjaro in 2022.
What we have learned (or rather, confirmed) through this latest wave of weight loss drugs is that our society continues to prioritize thinness over actual health. While we focus on our scales and our waistlines as the North Star of wellness, we forget that we’re growing more deficient in a number of critical nutrients that protect us from disease. Ninety-five percent of the U.S. population is not meeting the recommended daily intake of fiber. Another 75 percent is not getting enough magnesium. Globally, 1.1 billion people are zinc-deficient (symptoms of which can mirror those of Alzheimer’s disease) due to inadequate dietary intake.
There’s also the fact that Ozempic, like all drugs, can come with side effects. The most common, according to the drug’s website, are: “nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach (abdominal) pain, and constipation.” Also mentioned is “Possible thyroid tumors, including cancer.” One unmentioned but frequently reported side effect is referred to as “Ozempic Face.” Also, to maintain the weight loss, you must stay on Ozempic indefinitely—unless you used Ozempic to jumpstart healthier habits around food, exercise, sleep, etc.
But let’s be clear: Ozempic is a game changer for many. There are diabetics who need Ozempic. There are those for whom genetics play a much greater role in their body size than diet and lifestyle. There are people for whom weight loss is a health issue and who have tried everything to no avail. And whether or not to take this drug is a medical decision.
But that’s not true for all users. The question that we need to add to the discussion is: how can we make real improvements to health and chronic conditions? In those conversations in the doctor’s office about Ozempic (or Wegovy, the same drug used to treat obesity), is the doctor also asking: What will you be eating while taking this drug? Are you getting any movement in your day? How well are you sleeping? What are your stress levels? Those conversations need to be part of every prescription. Because one drug is not the solution to America’s weight epidemic.
At the same time, we need to get past the tired adage of “eat less, exercise more.” We’ve seen how little that message actually helps people get healthier. And that’s because lost in our debate about food is the simple message that food is so much more than calories that cause weight gain.
Even if we were to look at food purely in terms of its physiological effects (forgetting for a moment, if you can, its connection with family, culture, adventure, and joy), when we focus on calories, we’re only telling a small part of the story. Food provides essential vitamins and minerals. It supplies us with amino acids to build muscle, lipids to create hormones, glucose to power our brains. In essence, the food choices we make affect every aspect of our health and well-being.
Let’s take an example: a classic spinach omelet. Eggs contain some protein and fat. The protein breaks down to form amino acids, which the body uses like LEGO blocks to make structural proteins, enzymes, hormones, and even neurotransmitters. The yolk is also one of the best sources of choline (of which 90 percent of us don’t get enough), a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is critical for memory formation. The spinach in that omelet is rich in insoluble fiber, which adds bulk to your stool as food passes through the digestive system, helping prevent constipation; as well as some soluble fiber, which feeds good gut bacteria, helping suppress inflammation in the gut, and in turn, in the brain. Fiber also plays an important role in detoxification, improving your lipid profile, and regulating glucose. Spinach will also supply folate (a B vitamin that helps form DNA, RNA, and red blood cells), Vitamin C (an antioxidant necessary for the growth and repair of all body tissues), and carotenoids, a class of phytonutrients that has been linked with a decreased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. While this example doesn’t paint the whole picture, it shows that food and its nutrients are far more complex than we give them credit for.
The same principle applies to movement. There is so much more to exercise than caloric burn: aerobic exercise activates your immune system, making you less susceptible to viral illnesses. It strengthens your heart and improves blood flow. It boosts your mood, helps you sleep better at night, and enlarges the hippocampus, the brain area involved in learning and memory. The benefits of strength training are equally impressive: in a recent meta-analysis reviewing data from 1.5 million study participants, strength training activities were associated with a nearly 20 percent reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, lung cancer, and all-cause mortality.
Science and medicine have transcended the “calories in = calories out” algorithm—we are not machines. Still, the intricacies of our metabolic systems are so complex, the latest research in nutritional science is just hitting the tip of the iceberg. As we learn what lies beneath, let’s not forget the basics our parents taught us: eat the diverse and colorful foods on your plate to help you grow healthy and stay strong. Move often to feel good, think clearly, and sleep soundly. Everything else—even if it has 300 million views on TikTok—is just noise.