SAN DIEGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) Weight-loss medications have a role in the management of diabetes, as long as physicians and patients realize these drugs are not an easy fix.

In light of their side effects and other complications, weight-loss drugs haven’t reached their full diet-in-a-pill potential. Diet drugs remain controversial even as the Food and Drug Administration continues to approve new formulations. Such weight-loss medications can still play a role in the care of diabetic patient, according to a pair of diabetes educators.

The key, they say, is to understand the limits of their potential and their not-so-limited drawbacks. “There is no magic pill,” said Charmaine Rochester, PharmD, an associate professor of pharmacy with the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, Baltimore. “Patients need to know that it is not an easy fix. They still have to change their lifestyles with the medications.”

Dr. Rochester and Lisa Meade, PharmD, CDE, an associate professor of pharmacy at Wingate (N.C.) University School of Pharmacy, spoke about weight loss medications and diabetes care at the annual meeting of the American Association of Diabetes Educators and in later interviews.

These medications produce weight loss in the 5%-10% range. Still, “weight loss as little as 5% can significantly improve glycemic control, and modest weight loss of 5% to under 10% has been associated with significant improvements in cardiovascular disease risk factors at 1 year – decreased inflammation, improvement in insulin resistance, improved blood pressure, and improved cholesterol,” Dr. Meade said. “Also, weight loss may decrease the amount of medication needed to achieve glycemic control.”

According to Dr. Meade, it’s common for diabetic patients to ask about weight-loss drugs. “They have heard about them from friends or have seen advertisements on TV or the Internet or in magazines,” she said. However, “in general we do not encourage the use of medications for weight loss until the patient has demonstrated weight loss on their own. Counseling is very important so patients realize they will have more weight loss if combined with diet and exercise.”

Dr. Meade noted that the newer weight-loss medications – Qsymia (phentermine and topiramate), Belviq (lorcaserin HCl), Contrave (naltrexone HCl/bupropion HCl), and Saxenda (liraglutide) – are indicated in obese adults with a body mass index of 30 or above or those with a BMI of 27 with at least one comorbid condition, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, or dyslipidemia. Contrave is unusual: It’s a mix of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin) and the addiction drug naltrexone (Revia).

There are several other weight-loss drugs, including orlistat, which is available both by prescription (Xenical) and over-the-counter (Alli). Orlistat is famously linked to “anal leakage” – GI problems and oily and fatty stools.

Weight-loss drugs are controversial. Consumer Reports has warned against using Alli, Xenical, Belviq, Qsymia, and Saxenda “because they don’t help most people lose much, if any, weight, and they all carry potentially serious risks.” Earlier this year, Consumer Reports took aim at Contrave, too: “Nearly 1 in 4 people in the clinical trials stopped taking the prescription weight loss pill because they couldn’t tolerate the common side effects, including nausea, headache, and vomiting.”

As for other side effects, Dr. Meade noted that weight loss can cause hypoglycemia, so diabetes medications may need to be reduced. “Educators need to know that phentermine [in Qsymia and other weight-loss medications] is contraindicated for patients with any type of coronary artery disease [uncontrolled hypertension, stroke, arrhythmias or heart failure],” she said. There are concerns about cardiac issues in patients who take other weight-loss drugs, too.

Also, Belviq is not recommended in patients who are taking certain medications for depression, Dr. Meade said, “and some medications for depression and smoking cessation would be contraindicated with Contrave.”

Dr. Meade cautioned that the new drugs often aren’t covered by insurance and can be too expensive for patients. estimates the cash price for a month’s supply of Contrave at $264-$295, although discounts and coupons can reduce that amount.

If patients do want to try the weight-loss drugs, Dr. Rochester urges educators to inform them about “the reality of the weight loss expected and remind patients that the research was completed in patients who also incorporated diet and exercise.”

Dr. Rochester and Dr. Meade report no relevant disclosures.