With 17% of children ages 10 to 17 considered obese, according to a recent National Survey of Children’s Health, consideration is being given to whether blockbuster diabetes drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy should be made available to children as young as 6 as a weight-loss solution.
The movement is sparking concerns among pediatricians and other health experts.
Some medical experts fear the increased attention to weight and body shape, rather than healthy habits, could increase the incidence of eating disorders. There also are questions over the impact such drugs would have on still-growing bodies.
At the same time, snack makers worry the weight-loss frenzy will affect their bottom lines.
Bloomberg reported Eli Lilly & Co. is planning to test Mounjaro for obese children while Novo Nordisk A/S is considering Saxenda, an older version of Ozempic and Wegovy.
The Kaiser Family Fund recently wrote that children on Medicaid are more than twice as likely to be obese than children with private insurance, 26% versus 11.4%, increasing the chances of developing chronic conditions like asthma, hypertension and diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the childhood obesity rate between 2017 and 2020 among children ages 2 to 19 at 19.7%, affecting some 14.7 million children.
The lure of a drug for weight loss is strong. Even Weight Watchers is embracing the idea after decades of concentrating on dieting tactics and meal plans as the way to control weight.
“It’s essential to remember that while medication can be a tool, it should be part of a holistic approach that includes a healthy home environment that kindly supports healthy lifestyles, education on nutrition, healthy eating habits, and the importance of physical activity,” Salina Mecham, CEO at Willapa Behavioral Health & Wellness, told The Food Institute.
“Relying solely on medication without addressing the root causes and behaviors can lead to temporary solutions and potential long-term complications.”
Potential complications of weight-loss drugs for kids could be physical as well as psychological, including eating disorders, a condition that kills more than 10,200 people annually. Among young people suffering from anorexia nervosa, 90% are female.
“As a pediatrician who specializes in whole family weight and emotional health, I have mixed feelings about the weight-loss medications being available for children,” Dr. Wendy Schofer, founder of Family in Focus, told FI.
“On the one hand, I believe that expanding the age considerations for the medications can offer tools that are needed for some children to thrive. On the other hand, we are focusing far too much on weight. Period.”
Schofer noted eating disorders are rampant in our society as a result of this focus. Children are bombarded with advertisements for unhealthy foods and then various body shapes are demonized.
Potential Impact on Snack Makers
“The medications are often needed because children are being raised in an environment that is vastly impacted by the snack makers, their marketing, product palatability and pathogenic nature,” Schofer said.
Dietician Madhuram Prabhakar said the use of weight-loss drugs in extreme cases could be beneficial, “but it might inadvertently encourage the perception that weight management can be solely achieved through medication, which isn’t the case.
“It’s crucial to foster a healthy relationship with food, focusing on its nutritional value and role in maintaining overall health, not just weight control. This approach discourages unhealthy food obsessions,” Prabhakar said.
Social worker Caroline Schmidt said many eating disorders are triggered by dieting, whether the diet concentrates on food intake or diet drugs.
“When I talk to people about the relationship between weight loss medications and eating disorders, a lot of people respond by saying something along the lines of, ‘That sucks, but it seems like the health benefits of weight loss are more important.’ I don’t believe that’s true, especially when you consider that eating disorders have a very high fatality rate,” Schmidt said.
Krutika Nanavati, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, said if the use of weight-loss drugs in children leads to a reduction in consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrition-value snacks, it could push snack makers to develop more nutritional alternatives.
And that may be the path Nestle is taking. CEO Mark Schneider told an earnings briefing that though the company has yet to see an impact from weight-loss drugs on its bottom line, it is working on a wide variety of products that could fill a nutrition gap for dieters.
Schneider told Bloomberg: “When you eat less, you have certain needs of vitamins, minerals and supplements. You want to be sure that the weight loss gets supported.”
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