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Investigating the dangers of ‘skinny jabs’, the newest weight loss trend

TextAlice Gibbs

Celebrity endorsements and online testimonials mean the injections are growing in popularity, but the long-term negative effects of the drug are still unclear

Take an injection and watch the weight fall off – that is the idea behind increasingly popular weight loss jabs. For anyone who has struggled with their weight, the appeal is understandable. Recently Gemma Collins stunned fans with news that her recent weight loss could be partially attributed to the use of the injections.

Weight loss injections initially started as a diabetes drug, but it was later found that when the dosage was increased it reduced appetite and helped patients lose weight. They contain the drug liraglutide, which can help suppress the appetite and control blood sugar levels and it’s sometimes prescribed by medical professionals alongside dietary changes and increased physical activity. While liraglutide has been shown to decrease appetites, as with all drugs there are potential listed side effects to taking this drug including nausea, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting and stomach detention.

In the UK, the two most common brand names are Victoza and Saxenda, both made by pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. While Victoza is only prescribed to adults with type 2 diabetes, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says that patients can be prescribed Saxenda if their BMI is classed as obese, or if they have a weight-related illness. But in recent years, commercial companies have been selling prescribed liraglutide injections to people who do not necessarily fit the BMI and health criteria outlined by NICE but want to lose weight quickly. Saxenda was approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for the treatment of obesity in January 2015. The EMA had previously approved it for type 2 diabetes in July 2009, and in America, it had been approved for obesity treatment in December 2014. 

Weight loss injections are largely marketed and sold online. Often referred to as a ‘skinny jab’ – which is also the name of one of the most popular suppliers of the product – they are pushed via social media feeds filled with memes, before and after shots, and the classic tape measure belt. SkinnyJab’s website states that its system “can remove hunger from the equation” and help you achieve your weight loss goals with a mix of a diet plan and their SkinnyJab injections. “SkinnyJab is a weight loss programme incorporating licenced prescription medication and dietary planning. It is used as a kick start to a healthier lifestyle and to help prevent illnesses associated with obesity, such as high blood pressure and diabetes,” explains a spokesperson for SkinnyJab. 

The typical cost of a four-week SkinnyJab programme is between £250 and £400. But how do they work? “The medication is administered using an automated injection system once a day,” says SkinnyJab, “The drug works by curbing the appetite. It does this by levelling out glucose levels in the blood, thus controlling insulin production. The drug uses stored fat cells, converting into glycogen, then into glucose to ensure that glucose levels are regularly maintained. This all combines so that the net result is weight loss.”

“Many people struggle with weight loss because of hunger cravings or not feeling completely full after meals and continue to eat more calories. Unlike some weight loss pills that stop some of the fat you eat from being absorbed and stored in the body, weight loss injections encourage you to eat fewer calories by suppressing your appetite,” explains Dr Diana Gall at Doctor 4 U who prescribe the injections.

“Currently, the drug has been approved for use in adults with a BMI of 30 or greater (obese), as well as in adults with a BMI of 27-30 (overweight) who have another condition such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or sleep apnea. This means that in the UK alone 64 per cent of adults could qualify for the drug, giving it huge sales potential for drug companies in the UK alone”

Currently, the drug has been approved for use in adults with a BMI of 30 or greater (obese), as well as in adults with a BMI of 27-30 (overweight) who have another condition such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or sleep apnea. This means that in the UK alone 64 per cent of adults could qualify for the drug, giving it huge sales potential for drug companies in the UK alone. 

The standard dose for type 2 diabetes is typically 1.2mg per day, with a maximum of 1.8mg per day. While the dose for obesity is 3mg per day. While providers claim that there is no way to overdose on the drug, it’s worth asking about the long-term effects of a drug that increases the release of insulin and impairs the release of glucagon from the pancreas.

When it comes to the audience for these medications, it’s much wider spread than you may initially think. While generally, women are considered to be more concerned about their weight than men, weight loss injects aren’t tailored towards a specific gender and the effects are the same. “We have a higher group of women using the products, but many men too. The experiences are pretty much the same, although men tend to lose weight a little quicker,” explains SkinnyJab.

In the last year, the popularity of weight loss injects has grown greatly in the UK, particularly thanks to celebrity publicity. With SkinnyJab even hosting a ‘Gemma Collins’ tab at the top of its website. “Endorsements from celebrities have glamorised weight loss injections as a ‘miracle cure’,” says Dr Diana Gall, “However, it’s important to remember that these are medication and need to be used safely.”

In addition to celebrity endorsements, online people share their experiences with the jabs with one user saying: “Feeling so good after shedding a stone thanks to Skinny Clinic. It’s so easy, just a pre-filled pen you can inject once a day to stop you craving sugar and bad things!” “I honestly haven’t felt this good about myself in a long time,” said another user of the injections, “I have my cousin’s wedding in December and I have no doubt I’ll be at my goal weight. It’s completely cut my cravings, my portions are tiny.”

But others aren’t so fast to praise the drug, with one user stating, “It didn’t seem to help reduce cravings or increase my calorie burn. Plus it is incredibly expensive.” “Having being sold it by a company that glamourises it with celebrities like Kerry Katona, I was prescribed 5 pens for £650,” says another user, “The side effects were really bad, headaches, feeling sick but I still managed to eat. I did more exercise and did not lose a pound. The nurse told me to stick with it, so I did for six months until I realised I was depressed and now owing £2000 to my bank. I’m now feeling worse than ever.”

As injections become more common and are marketed heavily online by influencers, particularly on Instagram (despite regulations supposedly banning weight loss content), it’s even more important to address the potential risks with taking any medication. If you’re looking to get hold of weight loss injections on the NHS, you may find this difficult. The manufacturer of liraglutide (Saxenda) has stated that it will only promote the use of the drug on private prescriptions and do not intend to promote the use within the NHS. “Every medicine you take has its risks, whether it’s prescription or over the counter,” says Dr Gall, “Adverse effects are rare, but weight loss injection pens are no different to other medications, and do come with potential side effects. Although often they will disappear once the body adjusts to the new medicine.”

“As injections become more common and are marketed heavily online by influencers, particularly on Instagram (despite regulations supposedly banning weight loss content), it’s even more important to address the potential risks with taking any medication. If you’re looking to get hold of weight loss injections on the NHS, you may find this difficult”

A sleek social media presence and eye-catching ‘before and after’ images tagged with #skinnyjab #weightloss praising the results of jabs can all add to the idea that weight loss injections are an easy solution for those struggling with their weight. With some posts promoting the drug sitting at hundreds of likes on Instagram, they are certainly gaining traction. Meanwhile, research conducted early this year revealed that the liraglutide market is expected to reach more than $30 million by 2024, showing that growth within the industry is continuing and that our appetite for weight loss solutions is not going away any time soon.

SkinnyJab claims it’s selective with customers, saying: “All of our patients are clinically screened to check for contraindications before treatment. Patients have access to 24/7 support and aftercare service with the information they may need.” However, Dr Gall warns about taking medical advice from such brands. “Patients still need to live a healthy lifestyle alongside using these injections,” she says. “Weight-loss injection pens have become widely available online, but buying them from a regulated doctor service is far safer than celebrity brands. A medicine such as these needs a prescription and doctor’s approval.” 

While weight loss jabs can be a way forward for those struggling with their weight, it is important to remember that they are not a long term solution, as Dr Gall explains: “If a person is struggling to lose weight naturally through healthy eating and exercise, and there is no medical reason why they can’t use weight loss injections, I would recommend them as a way of reducing weight and adjusting to smaller portions. But they are not a long term solution to weight problems.”

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