(Toronto) As a teenager and then in her twenties, Debra Wells-Hopey bought dozens of women’s magazines and devoured all the articles that talked about weight loss.
She lined up diet after diet and calculated every calorie. Then, when one of those diets finally worked, she continued to eat less, until she found herself in the throes of anorexia nervosa.
If Ozempic had existed in the 1980s and 1990s, the Halifax woman, now 53, thinks she would have taken it. She reportedly thought, “It can’t cause eating disorders because eating disorders are more complex — with social, psychological, and biological factors.”
But restricting food intake “is often a trigger” for people prone to eating disorders — and Ozempic could be “an express one-way ticket”, said Wells-Hopey, who recovered after treatment at the hospital. She is now a Program Manager for Eating Disorders Nova Scotia.
The intense hype for Ozempic and its sister drugs is fueling a “harmful diet culture” and “weight shaming” in Canada, according to some eating disorder specialists.
“Anytime there’s mass media coverage of different strategies […] for short-term weight loss, that’s obviously going to be a trigger for our patients and clients,” said Ali Eberhardt, dietitian with the program. of British Columbia on Eating Disorders at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
Manufactured by Novo Nordisk, Ozempic is approved by Health Canada for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, by injection. Its sister drug, “Wegovy”, has been approved for the treatment of obesity, but is not yet available in Canada. Since the active ingredient, semaglutide, is the same in both drugs, Canadian doctors have prescribed Ozempic in higher doses for some of their obese patients.
Endocrinologists, who specialize in metabolic disorders, said that when prescribed for weight loss, these two drugs should treat obesity that threatens a patient’s health due to risk of cardiovascular disease and other problems — and not as a quick fix to lose weight or get in shape. They also stressed that these obese people should continue to take these drugs for life.
Pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk has assured that it does not approve of the off-label use of Ozempic for weight loss. But eating disorder experts say the hype surrounding Ozempic reinforces the message that weight loss should always be a goal. The drug has also received unofficial endorsements from online influencers.
Health Canada said Novo Nordisk complies with drug advertising regulations because it lists the name of the drug, but does not say what it is used for — “ask your doctor,” the ad concludes, cryptically. But health experts argue that people now know full well that Ozempic can be used for weight loss.
Additionally, although Ozempic and Wegovy are only approved for use in adults, advertisements have also appeared in Canada for “Saxenda”, another drug manufactured by Novo Nordisk that works similarly to suppress appetite. . However, Saxenda has been approved by Health Canada not only for adults, but also for young people aged 12 to 17 who suffer from obesity.
In a recent statement emailed to La Presse Canadienne, Novo Nordisk maintains that its Saxenda is only intended for obese teens who “meet specific requirements.” The pharmaceutical adds that its marketing campaign for Saxenda is “aimed at an adult audience”.
Still, eating disorder experts say the promotion of an approved weight-loss drug for teens is concerning.
“Adolescents are very vulnerable to messages from others, messages from the media, so they’re a very high-risk population,” said Dr. Leanna Isserlin, a psychiatrist with the Eating Disorders Program at Children’s Hospital of Edmonton. Eastern Ontario, Ottawa.
Registered dietician Eberhardt in Vancouver agrees. “We’re seeing eating disorders and body image issues affecting kids at younger and younger ages,” she said.
Society “tells them ‘your body is a problem and really, at all costs, we will help you change your body’.” These are messages that stay with children for a lifetime. »
Although you hear more about anorexia and bulimia, the most common eating disorder is binge eating, also known as “binge eating,” psychiatrist Isserlin pointed out.
However, people with binge eating often have difficulty accessing mental health services, and they often feel “shame” rather than acknowledging that they have a “real” psychological illness, she said. declared.
Dr. Isserlin is concerned that people mistakenly think Ozempic is a good way to treat binge eating because it suppresses the appetite, instead of seeking treatment for their eating disorder .