The rise of obesity medications presents a fascinating scenario for the future of food and health. These drugs, which include GLP-1 agonists, hold potential to combat the obesity epidemic. Over 40% of American adults live with obesity. Morgan Stanley analysts anticipate the global market for obesity drugs will reach $105 billion by 2030.

It’s been projected that these treatments will reach 10% of the U.S. population – more than 30 million people. While some will call these products anti-obesity medicines, there is a new effort afoot to refer to them as obesity medicines. After all, one does not say ‘anti-diabetes’ medication.

Food on the Plate: Demand Shift

One of their immediate effects is on consumer food choices. Obesity medications often work by reducing appetite and cravings. GLP-1 based drugs mimic the action of a hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1. While a full understanding of how GLP-1-based drugs lead to weight loss is still developing, GLP-1-based drugs appear to curb appetite. These drugs also slow the movement of food from the stomach into the small intestine resulting in a feeling of ‘fullness’ that prompts decreases in food consumption. 

With clinical trials demonstrating weight loss of over 20% with some GLP-1-based medications and lifestyle changes (including more physical activity), there are reductions in calories consumed. There are reports that some of those taking these drugs have an increased sensitivity to sweet tastes and decreased pleasure responses to fatty foods.  Further, these impacts on taste are observed in rodent studies

Drugs and Diet in Healthcare

The emergence of this latest class of obesity medicines is not the first time the approval of drug treatments influenced dietary changes in North America. Did the shift to low-fat food products in the 1990s result from public health messaging? Those emphasized reducing fats to combat cardiovascular disease at the same time statins were approved.

At the end of 1987, the first statin drug was approved in the U.S. for lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol. The approval of statins followed the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommending a decrease in total fat consumption. At that time, the dietary guidelines advocated for a 10% decrease in overall fat consumption from about 40% of calories to around 30% to address heart disease and obesity. With the public consciousness about the role of dietary fat and health – reinforced by the emergence of a new drug class focused on lowering cholesterol – innovating lower-fat foods was a natural consequence. 

GLP-1-based medications appear to be a similar game-changer in obesity treatment. These medications allow individuals to manage weight effectively alongside changes in lifestyle. A recent publication on nutritional considerations encourages those taking GLP-1-based drugs to ensure adequate protein intake and increase fiber. And, with patients on GLP-1-based obesity medications being encouraged to follow a reduced-calorie diet and increase physical activity, innovations across the food sector may focus on protein, fiber, and portion size.   

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Innovation in Food and Beverage Companies

There are already consumer-facing brands targeting food products to consumers taking obesity drugs. Companies could develop products that complement the medications: 

  • Complementing Medication Effects: Imagine portion-controlled meals and snacks enriched with protein and fiber and with lower calories. 
  • Cater to Diverse Dietary Needs: Not everyone taking obesity medications will have the same dietary restrictions or preferences. Food companies can develop a wider range of options catering to vegetarians, vegans, and those with specific food allergies.

The Collaborative Future of Food & Health

The rise of obesity medications marks a significant step forward in the fight against obesity. However, their impact will be most effective when combined with a focus on healthy food systems, education, and sustainable lifestyles. By working together, the medical community, food industry, and policymakers can create a future where both food and health flourish.

Collaboration is core to our shared future. When government, industry, and academia work together, the results are stronger than those of any one sector working alone. The proof point is the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, where the industry was needed to deploy vaccines discovered by academic researchers, and government scientists provided critical oversight.

With the large market potential for obesity medications, the food and beverage industry has a unique opportunity to collaborate with other sectors and deliver innovations. By working across sectors, products can be developed that address specific needs – and thus, further links between food and medicine.  

Wendelyn Jones is executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS).