With celebrities endorsing Ozempic among others, it has drawn attention to South Africa’s obesity crisis

Ozempic has become so sought-after that it's hard to find and that's where the problem starts. Picture: Наташа Чижевская/Pexels

Ozempic has become so sought-after that it's hard to find and that's where the problem starts. Picture: Наташа Чижевская/Pexels

Published Apr 30, 2024


Big names like Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Kelly Osbourne, and Sharon Osbourne are a testament to weight loss wonders Ozempic, Wegovy,and Mounjaro, bringing these medications into the limelight on social platforms and in the media in general.

This celeb stamp of approval has sky-rocketed public curiosity, placing these drugs in the spotlight as the top picks for losing weight, fuelling discussions across the web and driving up the demand from fans hoping to mirror the success stories of the rich and famous.

Globally being overweight is a big health problem and it's especially serious in South Africa. Here, half of the adults are either overweight or obese, says the Global Obesity Observatory. Out of these, 23% are overweight, and 27% are obese.

This issue isn't just with adults. Children and teenagers are also greatly affected. UNICEF reports that about one in every three girls aged 15 to 19 is dealing with obesity or is overweight.

And the future doesn't look promising either. The World Obesity Federation believes that by 2030, the obesity rate among South African adults might jump to 37%.

The fascination with Ozempic in weight management circles has caught widespread attention, prompting “Independent Media Lifestyle” to seek insights from Dr Marius Wasserfall, a diabetes specialist with Mediclinic, and Linda (not her real name), who is an Ozempic user.

Their perspectives provide a deeper understanding of the phenomenon.

What is Ozempic and how does it work?

Ozempic and Wegovy, both of which are based on the active ingredient semaglutide, play a pivotal roles in weight management strategies.

Semaglutide is a synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone that influences brain regions responsible for controlling appetite, Dr Wasserfall explained.

He went on to say this interaction reduces feelings of hunger and, by extension, lowers caloric intake, contributing significantly to weight loss efforts. Specifically designed for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, Ozempic has also gained recognition for its weight loss properties.

On the other hand, Wegovy is tailored for weight control, offered in doses higher than those found in Ozempic, underlining its specificity towards weight management.

In a reflection of the digital age's influence on health and wellness, a 33-year-old woman from KZN shared her story of embarking on a journey toward a healthier lifestyle, a path that took an unexpected turn thanks to social media.

While scrolling through TikTok, she discovered Ozempic, which led her to investigate her body's needs and confront potential undiagnosed health issues.

She opened up about her transformative experience that diverges from traditional weight loss stories.

“I started my journey hoping to simply lose weight and live a healthier life, but it evolved into something much more complex,” she said.

Intrigued, she delved into research and was fortunate to connect with a healthcare professional experienced with the medication. She was prescribed a generic form of Ozempic form known as semaglutide GLP-1.

In South Africa, semaglutide is registered solely for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. This weekly injectable is marketed by Novo Nordisk under the brand name Ozempic.

The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) lists only two doses of Ozempic available for patients in the country: the 0.25 mg and 0.5 mg per dose pen, and the 1 mg per dose pen.

Linda's journey towards this decision was influenced by a significant weight gain post-Covid and severe allergies, pushing her to consider other health factors that could be at play.

Despite her efforts in exercising and temporary weight loss through the Banting diet, and maintaining an active lifestyle with regular walks, she found herself struggling to lose the weight.

“Because I had tried almost everything in the market.”

“I had a consultation with my doctor before I even started on the drug. She explained what I needed to eat, what I needed to stay off to help me get the best results from the drug,” she explained.

“My initial goal was simple: improve my health and lose around 20 kilograms that were affecting various aspects of my life.”

Her journey, however, revealed complexities extending far beyond mere weight loss. As I delved deeper, it became apparent that my real struggle might be hormonal, hinting at possible insulin resistance.

“The symptoms were there, although I never underwent formal testing for conditions like PCOS or insulin resistance. There was even a time I believed I might have lupus or a thyroid issue. Thankfully, that wasn't the case. My diagnosis? A chronic wheat allergy.”

Linda has been on a treatment regimen involving semaglutide GLP-1 since November 2023, a decision that marked five months of consistent effort towards her health goals.

“Since starting the medication, the physical changes are noticeable. I've slimmed down, fitting into clothes I had once given up on. Although not yet at my goal weight, the journey has brought significant improvements.”

Don't let the promise of a quick fix put you in danger. Picture: Mizuno K/Pexels

However, the benefits extended beyond the physical. “It's not just about weight loss,” she shared. “My overall quality of life has improved remarkably. Mentally, I’m in a much better place. Physically, I no longer tire easily, whether it's climbing stairs or simply walking.”

“Though I have to admit that I miss my body when I see other fully figured women”, confessed Linda.

In 2022, the appeal of using Ozempic for shedding pounds sky-rocketed on social media platforms worldwide, with South Africa being no exception.

The hashtag #Ozempic itself boasted an impressive 300 million views on TikTok, marking it as South Africa's fastest-growing news source on social media.

However, this surge in popularity led to an unexpected turn of events – a global shortage. By May 2022, the manufacturers of Ozempic, Novo Nordisk, reported depleted stocks to Australia's medicine watchdog, and by August, South Africa was feeling the pinch with its supplies running out.

Dr Wasserfall, weighing in on the matter, highlighted the multifaceted approach needed when considering weight loss medication for patients.

“Choosing the right medication involves a careful consideration of its effectiveness, possible side effects, availability, whether it's covered by medical aid, cost, and how it interacts with other medications. Unfortunately, most weight loss drugs are pricey and not covered by insurance, making affordability a significant hurdle for many,” he explained.

The situation becomes more complicated with celebrities who, thanks to sponsorships or personal wealth, can afford these treatments and give off the impression that they're readily available to everyone.

The price of an Ozempic injection pen ranges from R1200 to R1500, and it can last anywhere from one to eight weeks, depending on how much you need to use.

This has raised concerns among medical professionals. Dr. Wasserfall added, “While we focus on the effectiveness of treatments, there's still a lot we don't know about how different treatments compare. Most studies to date don't provide a direct comparison, leaving some questions unanswered.”

Furthermore, Dr Wasserfall pointed out a major limitation in the current research: the short duration of most studies.

“For weight loss to have a meaningful, long-term impact, it ideally needs to be sustained over at least five years,” he noted.

This emphasises that, despite the allure of rapid results shown by celebrities, achieving and maintaining weight loss is a complex, ongoing process that requires professional guidance and supervision.

With the medication reshaping her appetite, Linda's dietary choices have shifted significantly. Facing allergies that bar her from consuming flour, nuts, and milk, she's leaned into a more natural diet, favouring meats and fruits over processed options.

“Ozempic quiets the food noise. It changed my appetite, the way that I view food, the way that I think about food. You’re not going to be hungry most of the time and that’s how this thing generally works.”

“My meals are simpler now. It might be fruit, coffee or just water to start the day. I've quit fizzy drinks and take days, even a week, to finish a juice bottle,” Linda shared.

This move away from processed foods and sweets means her body's response to sugar has changed too. “Sugary treats can make me nauseous now. But honestly, my cravings for sweets have plummeted. Fruit and vegetables are my go-to's.”

In terms of side effects, Linda counts herself lucky, noting some initial nausea with sugary foods and occasional constipation but nothing that deters her from appreciating the positive changes.

“I take my Ozempic shot every Wednesday right when I wake up. I made sure to ask my doctor if it was okay to use it with my allergy medication because my allergies were really bad at one point.”

She added: “I eat two meals a day and feel full; I don’t even think about snacking or eating more. It’s great since I work from home, it means fewer trips to the fridge!”

I still enjoy eating and don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything with the foods I can have. I’ve been able to lose weight, something that wasn't happening when I tried cutting foods out of my diet before.

“I'm glad my weight loss has been slow and steady. Some months I might lose a kilo, other months, two or three. It's never about shedding a massive amount quickly but rather about consistent, manageable progress.”