The ideal anti-obesity drug would produce sustained weight loss with minimal side effects. The mechanisms that regulate energy balance have substantial built-in redundancy, overlap considerably with other physiological functions, and are influenced by social, hedonic and psychological factors that limit the effectiveness of pharmacological interventions. It is therefore unsurprising that anti-obesity drug discovery programmes have been littered with false starts, failures in clinical development, and withdrawals due to adverse effects that were not fully appreciated at the time of launch. Drugs that target pathways in metabolic tissues, such as adipocytes, liver and skeletal muscle, have shown potential in preclinical studies but none has yet reached clinical development. Recent improvements in the understanding of peptidergic signalling of hunger and satiety from the gastrointestinal tract mediated by ghrelin, cholecystokinin (CCK), peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), and of homeostatic mechanisms related to leptin and its upstream pathways in the hypothalamus, have opened up new possibilities. Although some have now reached clinical development, it is uncertain whether they will meet the strict regulatory hurdles required for licensing of an anti-obesity drug. However, GLP-1 receptor agonists have already succeeded in diabetes treatment and, owing to their attractive body-weight-lowering effects in humans, will perhaps also pave the way for other anti-obesity agents. To succeed in developing drugs that control body weight to the extent seen following surgical intervention, it seems obvious that a new paradigm is needed. In other therapeutic arenas, such as diabetes and hypertension, lower doses of multiple agents targeting different pathways often yield better results than strategies that modify one pathway alone. Some combination approaches using peptides and small molecules have now reached clinical trials, although recent regulatory experience suggests that large challenges lie ahead. In future, this polytherapeutic strategy could possibly rival surgery in terms of efficacy, safety and sustainability of weight loss.