PHOENIX -- Two out of every three Americans are overweight or obese. But for the first time in 13 years, the Food and Drug Administration is seriously considering the approval of three new weight-loss medications.
Sharon Sawhill, 63, has had a lifelong struggle with weight. She's been a classic yo-yo dieter, gaining and losing up to 70 pounds over and over. It made her and those around her miserable.
"It's hard on my family, too," Sawhill said. "I'm not a happy person. I'm just not a nice person to be around."
MISERY LOVES COMPANY
Sound familiar? Most Americans are overweight and unhappy about it. But health experts say it's about much more than how you look. Obesity is a chronic disease with dangerous, long-term health consequences, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
In 2010, Sawhill's weight ballooned to nearly 220 pounds. In desperation, she turned to obesity specialist Dr. Rob Ziltzer at Scottsdale Weight Loss Center. He put her on Phentermine, an appetite suppressant. After Sawhill plateaued, he added a second drug, Topiramate, a drug commonly prescribed for migraine and seizures. While each works to suppress appetite, taken together they work synergystically, meaning, asZiltzer puts it, "1 plus 1 equals 4."
That drug combination, along with a food program, weekly supervision and counseling, worked wonders for Sawhill. She lost 70 pounds and has kept it off nearly a year now.
And those two drugs are combined in one medication call Qnexa that, if the FDA approves, could be on the market as soon as this fall. But Ziltzer cautions while it's a step in the right direction, it's no magic bullet. Possible side effects include rapid heartbeat, anxiety and insomnia. And of great concern with the Topiramate component: a risk of birth defects. He said Qnexa will likely be tightly regulated, perhaps even requiring monthly pregnancy tests.
The second drug in the FDA pipeline is called Lorcaserin, which Ziltzer said has the fewest side effects of the three under consideration. It works on serotonin levels.
"We know that when you increase serotonin levels in certain areas of the brain, in the appetite centers, you reduce appetite," Ziltzer said.
The third drug is called Contrave. It's another combination of existing drugs -- Wellbutrin and Naltrexone. Because of a risk of heart attack, the FDA is asking for more research on Contrave.
So how did we get here? Ziltzer calls it the perfect storm.
"We're sleeping less, we're more stressed, we're eating more throughout the day, we're eating more processed foods, we're eating more sugar, we're eating on the run," he said.