First came the “edible billboard,” which appeared last year during the holidays in New York’s East Village loaded with cake treats. Then, in late January, came the national marketing campaign, with TV and digital media promoting the idea that trying to lose weight doesn’t mean a person can’t enjoy eating.
Those advertising messages are pushing a product named Plenity as a potential liberation from dieters’ woes. It’s a $98-a-month weight loss treatment that looks like a drug: Patients take three capsules twice a day. But it isn’t a drug. And its success in racking up lost pounds, on average, is modest.
Plenity is FDA-approved as a device, one that contains sugar-sized grains of a plant-based, absorbent hydrogel. Each grain swells to 100 times its size, cumulatively filling about a quarter of a person’s stomach. The three capsules containing them must be taken with two cups of water at least 20 minutes before eating. The gel is not absorbed and eventually exits the body in stool.
The treatment is also generally not covered by insurance.
“We thought we would price it low enough that most consumers can pay out-of-pocket,” said Dr. Harry Leider, chief medical officer and executive vice president of Gelesis, the maker of Plenity.
Although far less costly than some other prescription weight loss treatments, it still “isn’t affordable for someone in the low-income bracket,” said Jena Shaw Tronieri, an assistant professor and director of clinical services at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders.
Plenity is designed to help patients who want to eat less, and taking it is comparable to consuming a big salad before lunch and dinner, without the actual raw vegetables.
It joins a growing selection of prescription weight loss and obesity treatments, from old-school oral medications that are often low-cost generics to far pricier brand-name injectable diabetes drugs newly repurposed as weight loss treatments. Results varied widely among trial participants; 59% of those who got Plenity lost at least 5% of their body weight, although the rest did not meet that threshold.
Plenity, whose active ingredient is a form of cellulose, embraces a strategy that has been used for decades by some people: to feel full before eating a main meal, thus reducing the calories they take in. Studies have shown that “if you fill up on broth-based soup or vegetables before a meal, you will feel fuller and eat less,” said Tronieri. She noted that filling up with water doesn’t produce the same satiating effect.
Still, some patients say that they “hate vegetables” and that “capsules are a lot easier,” said Dr. Christina Nguyen, medical director of obesity medicine at Northeast Georgia Health System. She is not affiliated with Gelesis but has been prescribing Plenity since its soft launch in late 2020.