‘Ozempic seemed to change more than the patients’ bodies,’ says Johann Hari, author of Magic Pill

Writer-journalist Johann Hari brings himself into the Ozempic conversation, taking readers through the risks of obesity, its causes and effects, and what the drug does

Published - May 11, 2024 09:02 am IST

Johann Hari

Johann Hari | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Did you take Ozempic?” entertainer Barbra Streisand asked actor Melissa McCarthy, on an Instagram post, now deleted, revealing two things about the world we live in (besides her boomer self still figuring out the tiresome everyone-sees-everything nature of social media). Her comment, in late April, revealed that a) irrespective of body-positive movements “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” as model Kate Moss said once, and that b) Ozempic, a drug used to treat diabetes for 18 years, is now being prescribed for weight loss. Several celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Elon Musk, have spoken about taking meds to lose weight (not just Ozempic).

An Ozempic billboard in Toronto.

An Ozempic billboard in Toronto. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It is in this context, and in a world that’s getting fatter — 1 billion people lived with obesity in 2022 as per a Lancet study — that Magic Pill: The Extraordinary Benefits and Disturbing Risks of the New Weight-Loss Drugs, has been researched and written. Writer-journalist Johann Hari has this way of bringing out a book on an idea whose time has arrived. But it’s not just his timing that’s right — share prices of companies developing drugs to curb obesity are rising — it’s also his style of looking at both the big and the little picture. “This is a mass experiment, carried out on millions of people, and I am one of the guinea pigs,” he says on page 20.

It is hard for a writer to put themselves into the story and not succumb to preening as the lead character. It is harder to bring in family and friends without over-emotionality, but Hari does all of this without boring the reader. Perhaps the balance comes from his journalistic training. “I’m not an expert,” he says a few times, while talking about the book to The Hindu. “I’m a journalist who goes on a journey to speak to the experts, to speak to all kinds of different people, to try to get to the bottom of what’s going on and with these drugs.”

A person using Ozempic.

A person using Ozempic. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

There is a formula to his books, of course. He brings himself into the narrative (he is on Ozempic here), along with people he is close to, visits experts (he’s travelled the world doing that) and takes readers through the science, simple enough for someone with a class 10 understanding of it. “The drug seemed to change more than the patients’ bodies. It seemed to change their minds,” he says at the beginning of the book, not weighing people down with complex knowledge on the brain-gut axis immediately, but introducing it later.

There’s a similar style with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions and Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.

The injectable drug, Ozempic, on display.

The injectable drug, Ozempic, on display. | Photo Credit: AP

In the 323-page Magic Pill, Hari remains endearingly vulnerable through his admissions and conversations with friends: “I had dinner with a friend one night, and as he shovelled some breaded chicken schnitzel into his mouth, he said to me: ‘I don’t get it. Why don’t you lose weight the normal way? Why don’t you go on a diet and exercise instead?’ He was only asking what I had been thinking at the back of my own mind.” This openness makes the drug companies’ responses sound all the more stilted, like they’d been put through several hawk-eyed lawyers.

Through the 12 chapters, an introduction and conclusion, Hari uses the bio-psycho-social transdisciplinary model of interconnectedness to look at various aspects of the drug, including what it could do to those with eating disorders. He takes the reader through the physical risks of obesity and what the drugs do: positively, “cause the people who use them to lose between 5 and 24 per cent of their body weight”; neutrally, that the effects “were coming from manipulating a tiny hormone named GLP-1 that exists in my gut and brain”; negatively, “scientists disagree on even basic aspects of it”.

He also goes beyond science, to why we’re becoming fatter in the first place, why we aren’t able to take the weight off (and it’s not about greed or the lack of willpower), and why we may need obesity drugs after all. He talks about an experiment done by a scientist, involving rats. The rats were first fed regular, healthy food, and then introduced to an American diet of very-sweet-very-salty “manufactured food”. Their “natural nutritional wisdom” crashed, he says, over a call from London: “They no longer knew when to stop. They just compulsively overate and quite rapidly became obese.” Then the professor withdrew what we call ‘junk food’. “He thought, well, they’ll eat more of the healthy food than they used to, and that’ll prove that it expands your appetite. That’s not what happened. What happened was much weirder. Once they’ve had the American food and it was taken away, they refused to eat the healthy food at all. It was like they no longer recognised it as food. They preferred to starve. It was only when they were literally starving that they went back to eating it.”

Everyone should read Hari’s book, especially those who determine whether a cart selling fruit be ‘allowed’ at the street corner or a supermarket selling ultra-processed packaged foods. Magic Pill is an honest look at a complex situation, where changing food systems meet burgeoning medical companies, and people are crushed in between.

Magic Pill: The Extraordinary Benefits and Disturbing Risks of the New Weight Loss Drugs; Johann Hari, Bloomsbury, ₹699.


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