WeightWatchers Is Getting into the Weight Loss Drug Business: What You Need to Know
WeightWatchers will offer members a telehealth treatment option for new weight loss drugs if they meet the FDA criteria
WeightWatchers recently announced the acquisition of a company called Sequence, a telehealth platform of healthcare providers who can prescribe the new weight loss drugs semaglutide and tirzepatide, under the brand names Ozempic, Wegovy and Monjuaro.
Specialists in obesity medicine say it is a chronic medical condition — a neurometabolic disease — and the new drugs are breakthrough treatments. So WeightWatchers aims to incorporate them into its program, which has focused primarily on behavior modification for weight loss until now.
Chief Scientific Officer for WeightWatchers Dr. Gary Foster tells PEOPLE the addition of weight loss medications to the program should be seen as an evolution but "not a left turn. We're always surveying the science. How can we, in this case, especially for appropriate individuals, make clinical weight management and the use of anti-obesity medications a part of the WW ecosystem?"
Foster says they are still working out exactly how WeightWatchers members will be offered the telehealth service, but emphasizes that a screening process would determine if those interested could benefit from the drug.
"They're certainly going to make sure that we're prescribing the medications for people appropriate from a BMI and associated medical conditions point of view. There's also questions about anorexia and bulimia upfront," he says.
Related: Why Body Mass Index Is a Historically Flawed Health Standard for People of Color
However eating disorders expert Oona Hanson worries that people with disordered eating may still end up using the weight loss medications. "WeightWatchers historically has not screened people for eating disorders," she says. "I think the bigger picture of this issue is this relentless pressure to shrink your body at any cost, whether that cost is financial or side effects or unknown risks."
But Foster says that people would get an in-depth clinical assessment before any prescriptions are written.
"Prescribing medications appropriately is really important to us, and they have to use the FDA criteria," he says. The FDA criteria is a BMI of 30 without medical conditions related to obesity, or a BMI of 27 with associated conditions like high blood pressure.
BMI is calculated based on a person's height and weight, and the number is used throughout the healthcare system, including the World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health, to sort people into four categories: underweight, healthy, overweight or obese. It's a formula: a person's weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of their height (in meters).
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However, BMI was developed in the mid-19th century by a white Belgian mathematician named Adolph Quetele — during an era when pseudoscientific theories were created to maintain nationalism and racism. The "ideal" measurements for BMI are based on problematic racial and societal biases as Quetele did not consider a person's ethnicity, gender or body makeup, using a sample of only white, European men to create the index.
Foster agrees that BMI is "a flawed measure," he says. "It's not sufficient, but it's the best screener we have."
"It's always up to an individual person to decide if and when and how they want to lose weight," he says. "Our role is to be a deeply science-based platform and program to help them lose weight, whether they want to do so with medications or not. It is not our role as a brand to say who should lose weight. That's a very personal decision."
From Hanson's point of view, "For someone who's vulnerable to an eating disorder, weight loss is counterproductive to health. So that's the big red flag for those of us in this field."
She says using the terms "science" and "health" in conjunction with weight loss can be problematic. She works with parents of children with eating disorders and says, "when you have these highly-profitable companies pushing [weight loss] even more, it just makes it that much more of a uphill battle for families to help their children accept their bodies and gain weight as part of recovery."
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