Worldwide, the prevalence of obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. Today, there are 650 million people who qualify as obese, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Obesity can lead to serious health conditions, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and treating obesity—that is, losing weight and keeping it off—is not easy.
A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine endeavored to find the most effective way to maintain healthy weight loss. In a randomized clinical trial, the researchers looked at 215 participants with obesity and found that the most effective way to lose and maintain weight may be to initially control one’s diet and then combine moderate-to-vigorous exercise with appetite-reducing obesity medication.
The medication in question, an appetite-suppressing hormone called liraglutide, is prescribed in the U.S. under names like Saxenda and Trulicity. Liraglutide is an analog to a natural appetite-inhibiting hormone GLP-1, which is secreted by the intestines when we eat.
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“Common side effects [of liraglutide] include nausea,” Professor Signe Sørensen Torekov, the lead researcher on the new study, tells Eat This, Not That! However, starting with a low dosage and increasing dosage slowly should help, she says.
Study participants were divided into four groups: two received placebo medication, and two received liraglutide. One of the groups receiving medication either performed vigorous exercise for 75 minutes a week or moderate activity for 150 minutes a week (or some combination of the two), while the other group did not have an exercise program. The same was true for the two placebo groups.
After a year, while participants in the placebo group with no exercise gained half their weight back, the participants who had exercise alone and medication alone both managed to maintain their weight loss. However, researchers found that the combination of exercise and liraglutide witnessed the most dramatic improvements. These participants lost more fat mass while retaining muscle mass. They also reported higher fitness ratings, reduced blood sugar levels, and improved quality of life.
While these results are promising, liraglutide is a prescription medication, and therefore not available to everyone. In fact, some registered dietitians, like Dr. Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, CDN may even advise against such appetite suppressants.
“I do not recommend appetite suppressants as your body gets used to them and you do not learn healthy behaviors,” she says.
As the study shows, even without liraglutide, participants who followed a moderate-to-vigorous exercise regimen were able to maintain their weight loss even without the appetite suppressant. Focusing on diet, as all the participants did during the first part of the study, is crucial.
“I recommend behavior modification, portion control, creating healthy habits, and choosing healthy foods which are not too calorie-dense. And of course, exercise is key too,” explains Young. “It’s important to create a lifestyle program you can sustain.”
For exercise tips, be sure to check out 3 Workouts Proven to Change Your Body Shape, Says Exercise Expert.