Doctor shares warning on dangerous 'budget Ozempic' weight loss trend

Dr. Jennifer Ashton discusses the dangers of using laxatives to lose weight.

September 15, 2023, 12:50 PM

Amid continued demand for drugs used for weight loss, including Ozempic, Wegovy and Mounjaro, some people are instead turning to laxatives.

The trend of using over-the-counter laxatives as alternatives to the drugs is touted on social media as "budget Ozempic," but it's a trend that doctors say is dangerous, as laxatives don't lead to weight loss and can carry significant health risks if misused.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, laxative misuse is recognized as a type of extreme weight loss behavior and can be a sign of a serious eating disorder.

"Obviously, I see the reasoning for this because Ozempic is so expensive and so popular now, but there is a totally different pharmacology," said Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent and a board-certified OB-GYN. "This is not something people should be following."

Medications like Ozempic that mimic hormones found in the body have grown in popularity thanks to reported use by celebrities and posts from everyday people on social media about successful weight loss.

Both Ozempic and Mounjaro are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat Type 2 diabetes, but some doctors prescribe the medication "off-label" for weight loss, as is permissible by the FDA.

PHOTO: The anti-diabetic medication Ozempic is pictured in a pharmacy on April 13, 2023.
The anti-diabetic medication Ozempic is pictured in a pharmacy on April 13, 2023.
Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Wegovy is FDA-approved for weight loss.

Without insurance coverage, the cost of the medications can run more than $1,000 a month.

The demand for alternatives to the drugs when it comes to weight loss is one reason that the use of laxatives is on the rise, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the rise in demand.

The Journal reports that searches for laxative pills have "more than tripled" in the past year on Amazon, while the manufacturers of Metamucil and Benefiber, two brands of fiber supplements, have reported "double-digit sales growth."

Ashton said people should know that although laxatives can be purchased without a prescription, they are drugs that should be taken with caution.

PHOTO: Miami Beach, Florida, Walgreens pharmacy, The digestive health shelf is shown in a Walgreens Pharrmacy in Miami.
Miami Beach, Florida, Walgreens pharmacy, The digestive health shelf is shown in a Walgreens Pharrmacy in Miami.
Jeffrey Greenberg/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

"They come with a list of possible risks and side effects, including bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and, if used in extreme cases, lightheadedness, or dizziness and fainting," Ashton said. "And they could actually worsen a pre-existing condition like constipation if taken incorrectly or inappropriately."

Ashton said that most importantly for people turning to laxatives for weight loss, the drugs are not designed for that purpose.

The American College of Gastroenterology includes laxatives as treatment for constipation, which is defined as "infrequent stools, difficulty in passing stool or both."

In addition, the College notes that changes to diet -- like adding more fiber and water -- should be tried first, before turning to laxatives to treat constipation.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health also stresses that increasing the amount of fiber and water in one's diet is the best treatment for bowel issues. The NIDDK also says that laxatives are recommended for short-term use and should be taken under the direction of a health care professional.

Ashton said that when it comes to weight loss, the best place to start is also with diet, along with exercise.

"There is a pyramid and it is the gold standard in managing obesity and the condition of obesity over life," Ashton said. "For everyone, attention to food and fitness is at the bottom of that pyramid. It is essential."

Beyond that, for people who qualify, FDA-approved medications for weight loss and bariatric surgery are also available as the "gold standard" for treating obesity, according to Ashton.