Ozempic, a drug traditionally used to treat type-2 diabetes, has emerged as a miracle cure for weight loss and has sent ripples through LA’s ‘influencer’ community. The NHS will soon prescribe it. But is the trade-off of losing one’s sense of taste and aversion to food worth it?
In early March 2020, I was eating a fry-up when I realised that nothing on the plate had any taste. I could feel that I was eating food and still had taste perception (that is, I could sense saltiness or bitterness), but nothing had any flavour.
It was like chewing through cardboard. A few days later, the cause of this mysterious olfactory failure was revealed: loss of taste and smell, it was tentatively announced, might be a symptom of Covid-19.
For the two weeks or so that I remained taste blind, I kept a diary, tracking my responses to different foods. Fruit pastilles became a favourite – especially the yellow and green ones because I could experience the lovely tartness of lemon and lime. Avocado was revolting: I only got that squishy, mushy texture without flavour. But what struck me most was how profoundly strange it all was.
Over the weeks, what had started as an intriguing novelty became increasingly upsetting. And after my taste and smell returned, it was a long time before I took food for granted. Taste, it turns out, is a gift.
Our fixation with food
As a society, we increasingly give a lot of air time to the taste of food: gastronomical writers wax lyrical over the ways that artful blends of umami and kokumi create richness, body and complexity – and have you noticed that top restaurants have started swapping generous portion sizes for the delicate savours of ‘small plates’? As head chef, Julian Slowik of 2022’s dark foodie satire, The Menu, intones: ‘Do not eat. Taste. Savour. Relish. Consider every morsel that you place inside your mouth. Be mindful. But do not eat’.
But the pendulum swings: our increasingly absurd fixation with food had to be countered at some point with a volte-face in the other direction. No wonder, then, that Ozempic has appeared with such fanfare: it’s the drug being touted as the ‘skinny jab’, the miracle cure for weight loss – without the hassle of dieting and exercising.
How does Ozempic work, and what does it do?
Traditionally used to treat type-2 diabetes, Ozempic and other GLP-1 drugs (including Wegovy and Mounjaro, set to hit high street chemists in England later this year) work by mimicking hormones that help people feel full after consuming food.
More than that, they make food taste repellent: the once delectable sight of a steak or a wedge of cake becomes a surefire trigger for nausea. And so, with food off the menu, users of Ozempic find themselves losing weight at an unprecedented rate.
As with any drug, there is a catalogue of possible side effects that comes with Ozempic and the ones that doctors don’t yet know. There’s also the likely chance that any weight lost while using the drug will be swiftly regained once the course is concluded – with the added risk of further weight gain creating an unhealthy dependence on Ozempic to maintain a desirable figure.
But these are old and familiar issues: any medication has possible side effects, and the possibility of weight regain is the unwritten rule of any short-term dieting plan.
Who gets to decide who can take Ozempic?
One criticism of the use of Ozempic for weight loss has been increased demand, which has, in extreme cases, caused supply issues for diabetic drug users – users whose life may depend upon it. But the question of who genuinely needs to take Ozempic and who doesn’t is for me – or anyone else in the media – to say.
That decision must stay within the purview of properly qualified doctors. And while increased demand for the drug may put a strain on the pharmaceutical companies who develop it, that’s neither an unprecedented nor unsolvable problem. One imagines that the same outcry would not have occurred if Ozempic had proved an effective treatment for some other chronic health condition.
Hollywood and the media’s involvement
What’s gross about the emergence of Ozempic isn’t the fact that – stop the press! – a drug developed for one medical problem might also be used for another, but the way in which it has sent whispered-not-so-whispered ripples through the upper echelons of Hollywood and LA, the thin getting thinner.
At the same time, obesity remains a matter of serious medical concern. Grosser still is the subsequent media hype, which tacitly glamorises celebrity usage of the drug and which must be held accountable for creating the contraband market that stymies the availability of the drug for the people who need it the most.
Because the issue here is not the individuals who tend to be the victims of a society that expects them to look a certain way, eat a certain way, and dress a certain way. It’s the peddlers of the stuff, which includes pharmaceutical companies, influencers, journalists, and celebrity pundits.
When a doctor appears on American national television and announces that Ozempic is ‘literally the hottest drug in the country right now,’ she doesn’t only need a lesson in rhetoric – she also needs to be taken to task for helping to retrench toxic cultures of body dysmorphia in the name of medical science.
A shift away from body positivity
Part of the reason that Ozempic is making headlines may be because it marks a decisive swerve away from wellness: for the last decade or so, we’ve seen an enormous shift in emphasis towards body positivity and healthy lifestyles rather than the relentless (and often unhealthy) pursuit of a single body type.
The sudden rise of Ozempic feels like a depressing backwards step – which may be unsurprising, given that it dovetails with the revival of 90s and early 00s fashions (which were, at the time, designed for size 0 models).
A life without flavour
The truth is, we desperately need to find ways of moving away from discussions about the body: even body positivity rests on the assumption that we’re all looking at each other when what we need to be doing is finding ways out of the culture of scrutiny that we’ve got locked into.
Ozempic may be a miracle cure for the people who, under medical guidance, really need it (whether for diabetes, obesity, or other health conditions). But as a get-thin-quick Hollywood fad? Trust me, life without flavour just isn’t worth it.