How Ozempic Changed Our Perspective on Food

Jimmy Fallon opened the 95th Oscars by looking out at the tony crowd and asking, “I can’t help but wonder, ‘Is Ozempic right for me?’” Sharon Osbourne recently shared she’s coming off of Ozempic after claiming she’d lost more weight than she had intended. Oprah announced she’s been taking an Ozempic-like drug and that she’s “done with the shaming.”

You’d be hard-pressed to miss the nonstop chatter about these drugs—which also include Wegovy, Mounjaro, Saxenda, and Zepbound—not just the questions about which celebrities are taking them, but also the endless stories about what they mean for our bodies, our health, and our culture. (I wrote about my decision to take Mounjaro last spring.) By the end of 2022, these drugs, known as semaglutides, were prescribed to around nine million people and counting; as of late 2023, it is estimated that 1.7% of Americans are taking one. The weight-loss properties of semaglutides have made demand so fervent that a cottage industry of start-ups now claims to be able to skirt the medical red tape for access to the drugs. (Ozempic and Mounjaro are only covered by most health plans to treat diabetes; some insurance plans cover Wegovy or Zepbound for weight loss.) If you can afford it, the sticker price for Ozempic ranges from $900 to $1300 per month.

The drugs have been touted as nothing short of a health miracle for treating people who suffer from diabetes, or who have been diagnosed with prediabetes. But Ozempic mania is driven by semaglutides’ seemingly magical ability to make anybody lose weight, and it shows no signs of abating; according to one projection, 24 million Americans, or nearly 7% of the population, will be on one roughly a decade from now. There is already a growing debate about prescribing them to teens and children. Barring the emergence of some yet undiscovered hideous side effect of long-term use, these drugs are poised to become virtually ubiquitous in the years ahead. What does it mean, though, for a culture rooted so deeply in consumption to be avidly peddling a drug that claims to control it?

From girl dinners to dirty pasta water martinis to TikTok recipes for hash brown McFlurry sandwiches—2023 was another year of outrageous, indulgent, or downright absurd food trends. It encouraged us to eat, drink, shop, vape—to consume—without thought, an imperative most succinctly captured by the phenomenon of the endlessly multiplying brand collab multiverse, from food x fashion (McDonald’s and Crocs, Erewhon and Balenciaga, Burger King and Fila) to food x celeb (Ice Spice Munchkins at Dunkin, Cardi B and McDonald’s, Snoop Dogg and Jack in the Box) to food x food (Cheez-It Puffs, Kit Kat Churros, Oreo Cakesters, Lucky Charms S’mores). And this is to say nothing of restaurant hype culture: You absolutely must go to Roscioli (good luck getting a table), don’t forget to try the dosa onion rings at Pijja Palace, the hour-long line is absolutely worth it for the burger at Slutty Vegan (it’s vegetarian!), and do not miss the danish at Kasama.

At the same time, we are shamed for not being able to control our desire to consume. After a (brief) semi-reprieve, we’re told that to be well means to be thin, spry, svelte. We need to eat less meat, eat more meat, drink more (water), drink less (alcohol), suck down sea moss, pile on the probiotics, and spend the rest of our money at Erewhon.

In 2023, these two impulses—the desire to consume and the desire to mitigate that consumption—came to a head, and Ozempic sits at the center. Semaglutides work by triggering a hormone that controls satiety—patients report feeling fuller faster, having reduced cravings, and being able to control eating in ways they have long struggled with. Emerging research suggests that they may even help control our overall desire to consume—not just food but also alcohol, cigarettes, and even what we buy. Ozempic is, potentially, a magic bullet not just for weight management, but our consumption anxieties.

The science is increasingly clear—if you struggle with overconsumption and the potential consequences that come from it, it is not a failure of personal responsibility. It is, instead, largely a product of circumstances—what triggers you’re exposed to, what neighborhood you live in, your genetic predispositions, your stress load, your affluence. Most of these factors, which play a large part in determining our health outcomes, are socio-economic conditions—not personal choices.

But the logic of Ozempic turns that on its head: You can choose to take one of these drugs, and you can control your fate. You could unlock not just the ideal physical appearance but everything that comes with it—the job you want, expensive clothes that you always dreamed of fitting into, the steady stream of suitors that will now miraculously appear. What’s more, all of this is apparently within reach regardless of what or how much you currently eat. (What’s a little constipation and nausea—the most common side effects—in the face of those possibilities?)

In the most basic sense—Ozempic is a trend because so many people are vying for it. The hype is not all that different from the Chai Frappe Burst (now at CosMc’s), Supreme Oreos, or Doritos hooch. Or, on the other hand, the latest wellness trends: the detox or low-carb repackage of the moment (keto, Whole30, internal showers, rinse repeat), Peloton bikes and their corresponding Instagram star trainers, biohacking (you don’t already check the PH of your urine?), and, apparently, just plain running. Or the newest physical enhancements: CoolSculpting to freeze off fat, buccal fat removal to reshape your face, and, of course, Botox to smooth it out.

Ozempic has been revolutionary for those who need it. But the frenzy may feed into the very same culture of consumption some people use it to solve for. As more and more celebrities admit to taking these drugs, they will become normalized as a way to maintain and reify untenable body standards, diets, and lifestyles in the face of our ever louder, ever more insistent consumption and diet cultures—so you can’t escape the Grimace Shake, but now it really is your fault if you consume too much. Having excised our innate, human desire to consume, though, we may start to long for it, especially as a way of connecting with others. After Thanksgiving, a friend texted to tell me hers was ruined because she had taken her Ozempic shot a few days before, and she had no appetite. When I asked her about it, she said that Ozempic had changed her life. However: “Sometimes, I just want to enjoy the food.”