Pediatric obesity is a serious problem, not only in the United States but worldwide. Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the epidemic of childhood obesity. Solutions for treating the millions of children and adolescents with obesity are desperately needed because prevention efforts over the past several decades have not been sufficient in slowing the steady rise in obesity prevalence.
Lifestyle modification, including dietary changes, increases in activity, and behavioral modification, are the cornerstone of any obesity treatment, but they alone are not powerful enough to treat obesity by itself in the vast majority of children and adolescents. This is because obesity is not a lifestyle choice; rather, it is a disease, and a disease that has a tremendous amount of biology driving individuals toward weight gain and the propensity toward weight regain if weight is lost.
Fortunately, the tools to treat the underlying biology driving obesity are becoming safer, more effective, and more widely used every year. The two most effective biology-based treatments for pediatric obesity are antiobesity medications and bariatric surgery. These two treatments, when accompanied by lifestyle modification, have the potential to reduce not only body weight but also treat many other risk factors, such as prediabetes, diabetes, high blood pressure, poor cholesterol, liver disease, and sleep apnea, as well as others.
Rise in antiobesity medications
Antiobesity medications are developing at a rapid pace. Seven medications have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for adults, and three medications (phentermine, orlistat, and liraglutide) are now approved for children and adolescents.
The number of antiobesity medications for use in children and adolescents is expected to expand to five, with semaglutide and phentermine-topiramate (Qsymia) both completing trials in adolescents in 2022. Each of these medications works by treating the biology that drives weight gain, whether it is decreasing impulsivity, reducing hunger and appetite hormone pathways, or improving energy regulation pathways. Weight loss at 1 year for currently FDA-approved medications in adolescents ranges from 3% to 6% on average, depending on the medications. The newer medications already FDA approved in adults that will soon, hopefully, be available in pediatrics result in 10%-16% weight loss on average.
A common parent and patient question regarding antiobesity medications is: “If I start an antiobesity medication, how long will I need to be on it?” The simple answer is: “Probably for the rest of your life.”
This can be a shock to hear, but obesity treatment is very similar to that of hypertension or diabetes. Using high blood pressure as an example: If a patient has high blood pressure (for example, 160/90 mm Hg), they will be prescribed a medication to treat it. Once blood pressure comes down to near-normal levels (for example, 120/80 mm Hg), a dose will be maintained, not removed, because that is the biological mediator keeping the blood pressure low. Removal of the medication would result in blood pressure going back to homeostasis (160/90 mm Hg in our example) in a short period of time).
The same can be said for obesity. For example, if a 16-year-old girl is prescribed liraglutide, a glucagonlike peptide–1 receptor agonist, and loses 10% of her body weight at 1 year, that is great success. Why would we remove the medication that is treating the underlying biology causing successful weight loss?
In short, we would not want to do that. Even if our example patient only maintained that 10% initial weight loss, that would be very successful, just like someone maintaining their low blood pressure. As medications begin to develop at a rapid pace and become more available to pediatric patients, the messaging and conversation around anti-obesity medications must continue to focus on obesity being a biological disease and not a behavior for treatment to be effective and not stigmatized.