Obesity Treatment: Understanding Your Options

By Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
December 6, 2022

Key takeaways

  • Obesity is a body weight classification based on the body mass index (BMI), which divides an individual’s weight by the square of their height in meters.

  • People with obesity are at a higher risk of several health conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure.

  • BMI alone is not a reliable indicator of a person’s individual health or risk factors, so it’s essential to consult a medical provider to determine the best course of action.

Obesity is a body mass index (BMI) classification associated with a higher risk of economic and social difficulties, a lower quality of life, and an increased risk of several health problems—including heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and more.

Obesity treatment often focuses on weight loss. Research shows that losing 5-10% of your body weight can improve your overall health and metabolic factors. However, losing weight safely and sustainably can be difficult. 

This article discusses some of the most common obesity treatments and strategies to help make your weight loss goals safe and sustainable.

Obesity Treatment Options

Obesity treatment options vary depending on your health history, goals, and whether you have certain health conditions associated with your weight—like type 2 diabetes. Generally, obesity treatment focuses on losing weight and implementing strategies to support weight loss.

Diagnostic tests, including a physical exam, medical history review, and laboratory tests, can help your doctor determine your best treatment plan. Below are some common weight loss strategies recommended for obesity. In many cases, combining these strategies can lead to long-term and sustainable weight loss.

Dietary Modifications

Not all people with obesity follow the same eating patterns. Still, making dietary modifications can help people with obesity improve their health. Working with a registered dietician is a great way to ensure you’re following a well-rounded eating plan that suits your health and needs.

Dieticians can provide guidance and support to help you establish healthier eating patterns. Different dietary strategies—including low-carb, low-fat, or Mediterranean diets—can benefit weight loss and long-term health. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins should form the basis of any healthful eating plan.

Though following a healthy eating pattern can support you in many ways, it’s important to note that dietary changes on their own are unlikely to lead to significant weight loss. Still, you should avoid fad or crash diets that focus on severe restrictions or food rules—these are more likely to lead to temporary weight loss followed by weight gain and can negatively impact your health and relationship with food.

Research shows that around 80% of people who diet to lose significant portions of their body fat cannot maintain weight loss beyond one year. On average, most dieters regain more than half of what they lose within two years. It’s important to focus on nutritious eating rather than strict and unsustainable diets.

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Regular Exercise

Getting regular exercise promotes physical health and mental well-being—regardless of weight. To reap the benefits of physical activity, obese adults should aim to get at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 75-150 of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week.

Your medical provider may also recommend strength training weekly to help you reach your weight loss goals. For those who struggle with motivation, joining an exercise class or finding an exercise buddy can help keep you on track and make the process more enjoyable.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy uses approaches founded in psychotherapy to help heal an individual’s relationship with food and eating. Research shows that eating disorders contribute to around 50% of severe obesity cases. Behavioral therapy can also help treat eating disorders associated with obesity.

Common approaches used in obesity treatment include:

  • Motivational interviewing (MI)
  • Behavioral therapy (BT)
  • Cognitive therapy (CT)
  • Interpersonal therapy (IT)
  • Acceptance-based therapy (ABT)

Weight-Loss Medications

There are several prescription medications for weight loss in people with obesity. Examples of medicines used to treat obesity include:

  • Semaglutide (Wegovy)
  • Liraglutide (Saxenda
  • Orlistat (Xenical)
  • Phentermine-topiramate (Qsymia)
  • Naltrexone-bupropion (Contrave)
  • Setmelanotide (IMCIVREE)

Before starting a new weight loss medication, it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider about each option’s potential benefits and risks. 

Weight-Loss Devices

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates medical devices intended for weight loss and management. Many of these devices can lead to more significant weight loss when used alongside diet and exercise programs than compared to diet and exercise alone. However, there are also risks associated with many of these devices.

FDA-regulated weight loss devices include:

  • Gastric balloons: Balloons that are filled with gas or liquid saltwater before being sealed and temporarily placed in the stomach via a catheter or endoscope. Balloons temporarily take up space in the stomach before they are removed.

Risks associated with gastric balloons for weight loss include inflammation of the pancreas (acute pancreatitis), persistent stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, and chest pain.

  • Endoscopic suturing devices: Devices used to place stitches in the stomach to decrease the size of the stomach.
  • Oral space occupying device: A device worn during mealtime to reduce the amount of food a person can eat.
  • Stomach space occupying device: A device swallowed before mealtime to temporarily take up space in the stomach to reduce the amount of food a person can eat. The device then moves through the digestive tract.

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Weight-Loss Surgery

Sometimes, your healthcare provider may recommend weight-loss surgery as a treatment for weight loss. Weight-loss surgery can lead to sustainable weight loss, but it’s also an irreversible decision that can cause complications. 

The most common risks include infection, postoperative bleeding, malabsorption, vitamin and mineral deficiency, cardiac events, and more. 

Common surgical weight loss procedures include:

  • Gastric banding
  • Rou-en-Y gastric bypass (also called bariatric surgery)
  • Sleeve gastrectomy

Before pursuing weight loss surgery, it’s important to speak with your provider about the risks and required post-surgery lifestyle changes.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main treatments for obesity?
The main treatments for obesity include dietary modifications, physical activity, behavioral therapy, medication, weight-loss devices, and surgery.
How can you prevent obesity?
Not all cases of obesity can be prevented, especially when caused by genetics or biology. Research shows that obesity is highly heritable, meaning the cause can be genetic and out of one’s control. However, in some cases, there are prevention strategies, including eating a nutritious diet, getting plenty of exercise, and getting regular sleep.
How can an obese person lose weight?
Losing weight safely and sustainably can be difficult to achieve. Working with a healthcare provider and/or dietician is recommended, as they can provide guidance and support. Following a healthy diet and getting regular physical activity are key for weight loss. Depending on your individual case, medication or weight-loss devices may be recommended. It’s important to speak with your healthcare provider about the benefits and risks of your medication options.
What BMI is considered obese?
A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater is considered obese. A person’s BMI is calculated by dividing an individual’s weight by the square of their height in meters.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP

Dr. Hemphill is an award winning primary care physician with an MD from Florida State University College of Medicine. She completed her residency at Halifax Medical Center.

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