I first thought something was up when I saw that a certain member of the cabinet had miraculously changed his appearance. He had gotten a new jawline. His neck came out of his collar effortlessly. When he rose from his chair at the Cabinet table, that chair no longer tried to hang longingly about his hips.
I understood! He had fallen off, stones and stones from belly and dewlap; and I immediately thought of Julius Caesar, and his preference for well-fed colleagues.
“Let me have men around me who are fat,” said the Roman dictator shortly before his assassination. “Yond Cassius looks thin and hungry.”
It turned out that Caesar was rightly concerned about Cassius. Then I saw another colleague whose silhouette visibly shrunk; and another. By then my spider senses were ringing.
If an otherwise healthy middle-aged man exhibits sudden weight loss, I reasoned, there are only two possible explanations. Either he’s fallen hopelessly in love, or he’s about to make a Tory leadership attempt.
I went looking for the hero in me – the one who was three stones lighter
I consulted the doctor and he told me that I was an ideal candidate for these drugs
Then one of those colleagues stepped forward and whispered the truth – that there was an entirely different explanation. He had access, he said, to a panacea. “You don’t want to eat any more of it,” he said. Real? I stunned.
“Look at me,” he said, triumphantly wagging his braces. He was right: there was much less of him than I remembered—so much less, in fact, that he almost looked emaciated by comparison. Suddenly I was interested.
I went looking for the hero in me – the one who was three stones lighter. I would find that slim and dynamic version of Johnson, who had been trapped for decades in pointless extra body weight, and I would set him free.
Tell me how, I said; and so my friend shared the number of a brilliant doctor who prescribed this magic potion. “Are you sure it works?” I said. He waved his braces again. There was no discussion. It was a miracle.
I consulted the doctor and he told me that I was an ideal candidate for these appetite suppressant drugs. It works like this, he said: When you’ve eaten, your body produces a hormone that tells your hypothalamus (at the base of the brain) that you’re full; so you stop eating.
The problem is that this natural hormone only circulates for a few minutes, and before you know it you’ll be chewing again. So scientists have been searching for decades for the exact molecule that will tell you to stop being so damn hungry: the satiety molecule.
In the 1990s, they thought they’d cracked it when they extracted a hormone from the digestive system of the Gila monster — a giant black-and-orange lizard from Mexico.
They took this hormone, gave it to humans and somehow fooled the human digestive system by slowing down the metabolism.
Their stomachs began to think they belonged to Gila monsters and started digesting things with reptilian slowness. People weren’t so hungry anymore, and as far as I know they just sat there motionless, blinking their eyes now and then and sticking their tongues out at flies. It was a great breakthrough – and a campaign is underway to bring the Nobel Prize to the scientists involved.
But the Gila monster hormone was still too short-lived; it didn’t last long enough in the system to defeat human greed. So scientists in Denmark (with some help from Oxford) started looking harder and harder for the knockout satiety hormone, a hormone that suppresses your appetite for an entire week.
I must have lost four or five pounds a week – maybe more – when things started to go wrong
It was a huge effort that took six or seven years – until bingo, they got it. The hormone is called semaglutide and the drug’s proper name is Ozempic.
It’s easy, the doctor said. All you need to do is inject a small dose of clear Ozempic liquid into your belly once a week, and voilà—no more raiding the fridge at 11:30 p.m. for the cheddar and chorizo washed down with half a bottle of wine.
Say goodbye to that invincible morning craving for a bacon sandwich. No longer will you be standing over the kids waiting for them to push aside their bowls of pasta – then relentlessly mocking what they’ve got left.
After 40 years of moral failure, 40 years of weakness in the face of temptation – of akrasia – I would acquire a new and invincible chemical willpower. I would become an ex-glutton, a person of moderation, grace, and restraint, and like my cabinet colleagues, I would begin to resemble a chiseled whippet.
He wrote out the prescription, I zoomed in on the pharmacy; and while I was honestly a little surprised by the cost, who cares, I told myself, think about the health benefits.
So for weeks I stabbed my stomach, and for weeks it worked. Effortlessly I pushed aside the pudding and the second portion. Wasn’t it amazing, I told myself, how little food you really need.
I must have lost four or five pounds a week – maybe more – when things started to go wrong all of a sudden. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it had something to do with constantly flying around the world and changing time zones, but I started to dread the injections because they made me sick.
One minute everything would be fine, and the next I’d be talking to Ralph on the big white phone; and I’m afraid I decided I couldn’t go on.
For now, I’m back to exercise and willpower, but I’m watching my peers—leaner but not hungrier—and hoping that if science can do it for them, maybe it can help me and everyone else one day.
I believe we are still in the foothills of what these drugs can do. They can be transformative. I spoke to Mads Thomsen, the brilliant Dane who led the search for semaglutide, and he described how these drugs will eventually be much cheaper and taken orally. He described how people can take them on a daily basis, like statins, and radically improve their health – and I think he’s right.
The obesity crisis in this country is dire: more than three quarters of the elderly are overweight or obese – and the numbers are dire among the children.
Yes, the drugs will cost a bit at first, but those who can afford it must pay; and think of the savings for the NHS in diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. We perform horribly invasive and destructive surgeries and treatments – all because people couldn’t control their appetites. Why don’t you help them?
I agree with the basic conservative instinct – that we should rely on old-fashioned human determination to keep that refrigerator door closed. We should all move more. But in the end it may not be enough.
I see nothing morally wrong in using these drugs to help you lose weight, any more than it is wrong to use an electrically assisted bicycle to get up the hill. Even for us fatties, it turns out, there is such a thing as satiety – and science has found it.