At the start of this year, aged 52 and menopausal, I booked in for a private health MOT. Like many women my age, I’ve gained some middle-age weight. In my case, about a stone.
It’s not the first time. Over my long career in television, which has included numerous shows on body image, such as Supersize vs Superskinny and Naked Attraction, I’ve always been candid about my own struggles as I’ve yo-yo’d between a size 10 and a size 14. Even so, the results of that check-up were dispiriting. Blood tests and scans revealed my problems went beyond weight: my blood sugar had risen into the prediabetic range, meaning if I wasn’t careful I could be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes – a condition that affects members of both sides of my family.
My cholesterol was a bit high, too, a natural but unfortunate result of the menopause, as levels drop of the female hormone oestrogen, which protects heart health, among many other things.
With a BMI of just under 27 I was slightly overweight but certainly not obese. Still, I knew I needed to shape up for the sake of my future health.
Channel 4 presenter Anna Richardson, pictured, considered taking a celebrity-endorsed weight-loss jab after seeing her BMI increase with middle age
And I have a confession to make: I was sorely tempted to try the new ‘skinny’ jabs.
Wegovy and Ozempic, which contain the drug semaglutide, and Saxenda, also known as liraglutide, are something of a holy grail in terms of weight loss. They’re part of a new generation of jabs which suppress the appetite and help you lose the pounds quickly and with minimal effort.
And the hype surrounding them is staggering. Hollywood starlets have admitted using the drugs to help perfect their figures for the red carpet. Elon Musk and US comedian Amy Schumer have also confessed to using them. Even former PM Boris Johnson has given semaglutide a go.
The drug comes in a pre-filled pen that can contain a number of doses, which is self-injected by the user, usually into the abdomen, thigh or upper arm. As weight-loss medications they are licensed for use on the NHS only in people with a BMI of over 30 and who have at least one obesity-related condition. But friends of mine, also in their 50s, have sought private prescriptions – which are given out far more liberally – to drop a dress size or two and regain the bodies they had when they were in their 20s.
Who, in my situation, wouldn’t be a bit intrigued?
But since then, I’ve made a Channel 4 documentary, The Truth About The ‘Skinny’ Jab, which airs on Tuesday. And I can tell you this: personally speaking, I now wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole. In fact, anyone considering using them to shift a few pounds – rather than to treat obesity and type 2 diabetes, which is what they are intended to do – should pay attention to what we found.
They are far from being a quick fix. At best, semaglutide, liraglutide and similar medications might not work the way you hope. At worst, the drugs you are buying could be dangerous.
These medications were designed to help those with type 2 diabetes, harnessing a hormone called GLP-1 to help the body release more insulin and lower blood sugar levels.
But it was noticed that they also had a dramatic impact on a patient’s weight. Experts now see them as a game-changer, as they can help people lose up to 15 per cent of their body weight in a year, and keep the weight off for as long as they stay on the treatment.
It’s not hard to see why doctors are so keen: obesity, and its associated problems, costs the NHS £6.5 billion a year – a figure which is expected to rise to £9.7 billion by 2050.
Anna Richardson, pictured holding the ‘miracle weight-loss drug’
Two-thirds of us are overweight or obese, which puts us at risk of a whole load of potentially fatal conditions, including cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. If these drugs could begin to reverse this picture, as many hope they will, they’ll save money and lives.
But for the past few years, social media has been overflowing with stories from ordinary people who have used the jabs to transform their health and the way they look. And this has fuelled a different sort of demand from people who are, as I was, seduced by the idea of a quick diet fix.
The stampede to get hold of them – largely from those who don’t really need them – has put so much pressure on supplies that, in July, the Government issued an alert to NHS and private weight-loss clinics instructing them to stop prescribing the jabs because the shortages were putting the lives of people with type 2 diabetes in danger.
At the time, The Mail on Sunday received a flood of letters from diabetic patients who were frantically trying to get hold of the drug.
One 73-year-old woman said she had to call 47 chemists before finally getting hold of the jab. Even then, she only got a month’s worth, and at half her normal dose.
Another type 2 diabetic said her blood sugars and gone awry because she’d been off the drug for a month due to shortages.
Despite the Government warning, what we found making the documentary was that private doctors and online pharmacies were routinely ignoring this instruction and were only too happy to prescribe the slimming jabs to those prepared to pay. You don’t even have to fit the criteria.
I made appointments with several private doctors for our investigation – crucially, after the Government’s alert about the shortages.
I used the same script for each of them: namely, that I was a 52-year-old woman, a little heavier than I’d like to be, and that I’d like to get back to the weight I was in my 20s. I’d heard about semaglutide, I told them, and was really interested in whether it might be right for me.
Two of the three doctors offered it to me outright, telling me I was the ‘perfect candidate’ despite making no assessment of my health or calculating my BMI.
One, when I admitted I was a bit needle-phobic, even got an Ozempic pen out, showed it to me and said: ‘Well, we could start now.’
Another doctor said he would leave it for me in an unmarked envelope at reception, assuring me ‘nobody needs to know what it is’.
It felt so uncomfortable, as if it was an illegal drugs deal.
Only one doctor of the three I visited said she wouldn’t give it to me. She said she could tell, just by looking at me, that my BMI wasn’t high enough.
But when I pushed her, telling her that I had friends just like me who were taking it, she directed me towards some online pharmacies I could try.
These insist you have a ‘consultation’, which is really just a tick-box questionnaire.
The concern with this is that anyone could lie in order to get a prescription – you could be a 15-year-old with your mum’s credit card or someone with an eating disorder. No one would be any the wiser. Where are the checks and balances?
At least, however, these are the official channels and the medication you will get is the real deal.
What is perhaps more shocking – and definitely more dangerous – is the black market in semaglutide which has boomed since the shortages began.
It’s something The Mail on Sunday has warned about recently, after finding another diabetes drug, tirzepatide, which also prompts weight loss, was being openly sold on sites like TikTok.
These dealers prey on people who are struggling to get hold of their diabetes medication and also on those sucked in by the weight-loss hype.
For the film, we met a woman called Colleen who had lost more than ten stone after being prescribed Saxenda on the NHS and now runs an online weight-loss support group. She told me the group had initially been a ‘nice community of people trying to support each other’ – but now it is awash with people trying to sell the jabs.
For the film, we met a woman called Colleen, right, who had lost more than ten stone after being prescribed Saxenda on the NHS and now runs an online weight-loss support group. She told me the group had initially been a ‘nice community of people trying to support each other’ – but now it is awash with people trying to sell the jabs
Colleen says people are regularly being scammed – someone recently paid £1,200 for ten pens which failed to turn up.
But if it does arrive, how do you know it’s the real deal?
Our production team placed three orders with different people claiming to sell semaglutide online to see if what they were selling was genuine.
Medication sold on the black market has been known to be cut with substances as dangerous as lead and the potent painkiller fentanyl. In an article for this newspaper recently, Vivienne Parry revealed fake Ozempic was being sold in several countries, and in one case contained insulin – if too much insulin is injected into the body, blood sugar can drop to fatally low levels in seconds.
One of our orders failed to materialise. Another arrived in pretty pink packaging but I was shocked to find it was simply a vial of white powder along with a load of syringes and a liquid. It came with no instructions at all. The needles were also noticeably larger than those in Ozempic pens.
We sent this, along with another order, off to a laboratory at the University of Oxford to be tested.
The lab used a technique which compared the samples with genuine Ozempic.
They could not tell us what they actually were, but the two black market samples categorically were not the genuine drug. And that means they could be anything. So you are taking your life into your own hands if you buy this stuff through social media. That is genuinely terrifying.
It is also not unheard of that people buying these counterfeit drugs are ending up in A&E because of the terrible side effects, which include nausea, acid reflux and constipation.
They’re usually too ashamed and embarrassed to say what they’ve been doing, let alone report the harm to the regulators.
So far, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency – the UK’s drug safety watchdog – has received only one counterfeit report of semaglutide. There’s no doubt this is just the tip of the iceberg.
But even if you do take the real deal you may not have an easy ride. Up to 45 per cent of people report unpleasant side effects which, along with digestive problems, include headaches, fatigue and bruising from the jabs.
Among my friends, the one who was prescribed Ozempic legitimately for obesity has lost about a stone – but is dissatisfied because of the side effects and might stop. Another friend who lost six pounds in a month – which, I’d argue, you could do through diet and exercise – has come off it, too, because it was making her feel sick.
Only one friend is delighted with it. She looks fabulous, it has to be said. But the big question is: what happens now?
We know that the minute you come off these drugs, the weight piles back on – unless you’ve taken major steps to control it through diet and exercise.
The idea, of course, is that they are intended to be given alongside lifestyle changes – along with support from a multidisciplinary team of medics and health professionals. This aims to improve eating habits, encourage exercise and educate about nutrition.
The goal is that, eventually, patients can stop or drastically reduce their dose.
But the truth is that the NHS doesn’t have the resources to offer this to everyone who needs it, despite a £40 million pilot scheme to allow more people to access semaglutide via GP practices.
One frontline GP told our documentary that, even if there were just five patients a week coming in for ongoing support and monitoring, the practice wouldn’t cope.
What this has all shown to me is that skinny jabs are fuelling this very unhealthy cultural desire to be thin. It’s deeply dysfunctional, in my view, even though I can understand the desire to do it.
Earlier this year, before I made the documentary and as I contemplated my own excess baggage and the threat of type 2 diabetes, I spoke to the doctor who had carried out my MOT and asked him if the skinny jabs might work for me.
To my surprise, he gave me a bit of a stern pep talk.
My BMI was too low for me to qualify for the drugs, he said. I’d be far better shifting the weight by improving my diet and overhauling my lifestyle.
And he was right.
In my opinion, rather than trying to medicate our way to being thin, we should be focusing on tighter regulation of the food industry, championing exercise and educating people on how to eat more healthily. The focus has always been too much on being thin, when it should be about being healthy.
Personally, I’ve scrapped the jabs idea.
Taking it, for someone like me, is a step into the unknown. It’s not been clinically trialled on people who are just slightly overweight so we simply don’t know what it will do.
And, because of the booming black market, people are putting their lives at risk for the sake of losing a few pounds.
If health chiefs don’t make a concerted effort to crack down on the problem, I fear things will only get worse.
lThe Truth About The ‘Skinny’ Jab is on Channel 4 at 8pm on Tuesday.