The HCG Diet: Miracle Solution or Dangerous Fad?
Imagine if you could effortlessly lose 43 pounds in 37 days. In other words, you could drop an average of one pound a day, every day, for a month.
Could weight loss really be so easy?
…you’re willing to pump yourself full of a hormone that’s produced during pregnancy…
…and if you adopt a restrictive diet that allows you a paltry 500 calories a day – about what you’d normally get from just one healthy dinner…
…and if you’re content risking your health and well-being, just to shed some pounds.
Not so simple after all, huh?
The hormone is HCG, which has been linked to a slew of dangerous side effects. Worse, it doesn’t even work.
Proponents may claim that thousands of people have safely lost weight on the HCG diet. But the research tells a different tale.
America’s Growing Obesity Epidemic…
The USDA estimates that the average American consumes a whopping 156 pounds of sugar every year—that’s 31 five-pound bags each! Needless to say, eating habits such as these are responsible for Americans’ spiraling weight gain. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one third (35.7 percent) of U.S. adults are now classified as obese, and two-thirds of adults are classified as overweight.
Unfortunately, instead of adopting healthy eating patterns, many dieters are looking for a quick fix, often in the form of fad diets, many of which are frowned upon by doctors and other health authorities.
Take the HCG diet: Fans swear that it will help you lose huge amounts of weight in a short time – “lose 30 pounds in 30 days” is a common refrain. But are such claims accurate? And even if they are, is this diet worth the risk?
What is HCG?
The HCG weight loss system revolves around taking a substance called human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), a hormone produced by pregnant women. HCG can be extracted from urine or created synthetically.
In the early stages of pregnancy, many women suffer from nausea and vomiting and may consume fewer calories as a result. This puts them at risk for going into “starvation mode” – the ultimate consequence of low calorie consumption – which could trigger a spontaneous miscarriage. To prevent this problem, their bodies release HCG, which, in turn, triggers the release of fat from areas such as the hips, thighs, buttocks, and abdomen. This tricks the body into believing that it is taking in sufficient calories, thus ensuring adequate nutrition for the growing fetus.
But what’s all that got to do with dieting?
Well, in the 1950s, a British endocrinologist named Dr. Albert Simeons discovered that his overweight teenage male patients who received injections of HCG lost body fat. He later combined administration of HCG with a very low calorie diet, which he recommended as a system to shed massive amounts of weight quickly.
These days, people who promote the HCG diet claim that it leads to rapid weight loss, including loss of fat around the stomach, hips, thighs, and upper arms; minimization of hunger; and increased feelings of well-being.
The diet regime consists of taking HCG – in the form of drops, injections, or homeopathic preparations – as you follow a very low calorie diet. Taking the HCG supposedly prevents the body from turning to lean muscle for calories and directs it to draw on abnormal fat reserves instead. It’s also said to prevent the body from going into starvation mode, which can cause serious damage to the body.
Sounds pretty easy, right? But there’s more to this story.
Low Calorie, High Hormone…
HCG appears to exert its action on the hypothalamus, where it causes the body to release stored fat, which is then available to be used by the body for nourishment. But this alone isn’t sufficient to cause weight loss. In fact, proponents say it’s the combined effect of HCG and a daily 500-calorie diet that’s responsible for its alleged results.
But here’s the problem: Weight loss, as we now know, has little to do with calories themselves.
Think about it. Sure, you could shed pounds if you consumed just 500 calories in the form of fruits, vegetables, and lean protein. But swap those healthy choices for cookies, chips, and other “empty”, low-nutrient calories, and you’re not going to lose weight. In fact, you might even gain some pounds!
People who successfully lose weight and keep it off aren’t doing so by simply cutting calories. They’re choosing foods that are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds, and low in sugar and other refined carbohydrates.
That said, the HCG diet does cut out all sugar and most starches, focusing on one vegetable, one fruit, and one protein for lunch, then the same plan at dinner, only using different foods than those eaten at lunch. No wonder adherents have lost weight. But the diet also includes some questionable advice, like skipping breakfast—a sure way to set yourself up for failure, because it downregulates your metabolism and can cause you to overeat later in the day.
A sample daily meal plan on the HCG diet includes:
Breakfast: Tea or coffee in any quantity without sugar. Only one tablespoonful of milk allowed in 24 hours. You may use stevia as a sweetener, but you’re not supposed to actually eat – a pattern that studies have actually linked to a greater risk of weight gain, not loss.
- Protein: Choose from—100 grams of veal, beef, chicken breast, fresh white fish, lobster, crab, or shrimp. (Salmon, eel, tuna, herring, dried, or pickled fish are not allowed.)
- Vegetable: Choose from—one to two cups of spinach, chard, chicory, beet-greens, lettuce, tomatoes, celery, fennel, onions, red radishes, cucumbers, asparagus, or cabbage.
- Carbohydrate: One breadstick (grissino) or one Melba toast. Research shows that refined carbs promote weight gain, so adding this isn’t a terribly good idea.
- Fruit: Choose from—apple, orange, 10 strawberries, or one-half grapefruit.
Dinner: The same four options as lunch (above).3
The diet also advocates drinking lots of water, along with green tea, which has fat-burning qualities.
You’re supposed to follow these restrictions for three to six weeks. After that, dieters begin a six-week “maintenance” phase that’s less restrictive about calories (they can consume up to 2,000 a day) but still requires that they strictly avoid all grains, sugars, dairy, nuts, and fats for the first half of the phase.
Again, that’s a flawed strategy: Heart-healthy fats like monounsaturated and omega-3 fats are an important part of a wholesome diet, and research even suggests that consuming these fats promotes weight loss. Why would you avoid good fat when it improves satiety (makes you feel full), is anti-inflammatory, heart healthy, and helps you lose weight?
Though common sense arguments like these seem to stand in opposition, one might ask, “But what does the science say?”
Unfortunately, it isn’t any more promising.
The Research Doesn’t Support the Claims…
The HCG diet may have plenty of fans – but does it really work? Let’s take a look at the research.
One double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 40 obese women compared the effect of HCG injections versus placebo on weight loss. For six days a week over six weeks, the participants were given daily intramuscular injections of either HCG or saline solution, and placed on a diet of 1,200 calories per day – about what people eat during the maintenance phase of the diet.
The researchers found that injecting the participants with HCG showed no advantages over injecting them with saline, and considered that their weight loss was in line with what would be expected on a restricted calorie diet. Given this, they concluded that there was no rationale for the use of HCG injections as an aid to weight loss.6
In another double-blind, randomized trial, researchers assigned 13 overweight women ages 20 to 40 to either receive injections of HCG, while the other group received placebo injections six days a week for six weeks. Both groups consumed 500 calories a day.
At the end of the study period, the researchers found that both groups experienced identical weight loss and that there seemed to be no difference in mood, hunger, or body measurements. They concluded that, in the treatment of obesity, injections of HCG were no more effective than placebo.7
A larger study of 51 overweight women between the ages of 18 and 60 also found no significant difference in weight loss between those participants who had received the HCG over those who had received the placebo.8
And those are just the individual studies. According to a meta-analysis of eight uncontrolled and 16 controlled trials that measured the effect of HCG in the treatment of obesity, “There is no scientific evidence that HCG is effective in the treatment of obesity; it does not bring about weight-loss or fat-redistribution, nor does it reduce hunger or induce a feeling of well-being.”9
And other experts agree.
For example, Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, describes the HCG diet as “reckless, irresponsible, and completely irrational.” One of the problems he sees with the diet, along with inadequate caloric intake, is that, even if you do lose weight on the diet, the weight does not stay off. He also considers it unsafe, due to the number of side effects that are associated with the HCG.
Ineffective AND Unsafe…
Proponents say that they’ve had success with the HCG diet, even though the research doesn’t bear it out. So what’s the harm in just trying it?
Well, the diet isn’t just ineffective. It also appears to be unsafe.
First, people following the HCG diet system report a laundry list of troubling side effects, including headaches, fatigue, constipation, hair loss, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, agitation, depression, breast tenderness, ovarian cysts, thromboembolism, and testicular tumors and hypergonadism in men.
In women, HCG can cause hyper-stimulation of the ovaries. This leads to pelvic aching, accompanied by swelling of the hands and the lower limbs, stomach ache, weight gain, breathing difficulties, diarrhea, nausea, and decreased urination.
It is important to note that these side effects are more commonly seen when patients take the injections as opposed to the sublingual drops or homeopathic preparations.10
The HCG diet could also cause problems for those with a genetic pre-disposition to gallbladder disease. The diet itself could aggravate this problem because of the small amount of fat allowed in the second phase. Gout symptoms may also increase in severity in rare cases.11
There could even be a cancer danger. Human chorionic gonadotropin stimulates production of the hormone androgen, which can exacerbate prostate and other androgen-mediated cancers.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control has been called to investigate over a dozen deaths caused by this diet, dating back to the 1970s. Based on this both the American College of Bariatric Physicians and the FDA advises patients and consumers alike to avoid HCG weight loss products.
This Diet Loses Big…
No matter how many people say they have lost weight with the HCG diet, the fact remains that there’s no good research to support these claims. It just doesn’t work – and it’s too extreme to result in long-term weight loss, anyway.
That would be reason enough to pass on this fad. Now, consider that HCG has been linked to a slew of dangerous side effects and potential risks. Not to mention possible deaths…
Why on earth would you want to take that chance – especially when there’s not even a weight-loss pay off or other health benefits to be had?
The truth is, many people have lost weight and kept it off through good old-fashioned diet and exercise: Steer clear of sugar and refined starches. Ditch the processed and convenience foods in favor of eggs, lean pastured meat, and fish, accompanied by generous servings of vegetables, and lower-glycemic fresh fruits. And always drink plenty of good quality water and green tea when dieting, as this speeds weight loss.
You should also make time for exercise most days. Try some form of high-intensity exercises 3-5 times a week for 20 minutes at a time, such as sprints, rowing, circuit training or something similar.
It’s not sexy, new, or trendy. But it works – safely. And isn’t that the most important part of any diet?
Remember to keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1Coleman, E. Recommended Calorie Intake for a Female. 2011 Jul 22.
2Billian, S. Recommended Caloric Intake for a Male. 2011 Jan 16.
3Simeons, ATW. The Original hCG Diet.
4Edmond, A and Flaherty, E. The Controversial Diet That Really Works. Marie Claire magazine. 2011 Jan 27.
5Minkoff, D. HCG Weight-Loss Package Launched By BodyHealth.
6Bosch B, et al. Human chorionic gonadotropin and weight loss. A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. S Afr Med J. 1990 Feb 17;77(4):185-9.
7Greenway FL, Bray GA. Human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) in the treatment of obesity: a critical assessment of the Simeons method. West J Med. 1977 Dec;127(6):461-3.
8Stein MR, et al. Ineffectiveness of human chorionic gonadotropin in weight reduction: a double-blind study. Am J Clin Nutr. 1976 Sep;29(9):940-8.
9Lijesen GK, et al. The effect of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) in the treatment of obesity by means of the Simeons therapy: a criteria-based meta-analysis. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 1995 Sep;40(3):237-43.
10Scritchfield, R. Thinking about HCG Diet? Look Elsewhere for Weight Loss. 2009 Sep 16.
11Bird, B. HCG Diet Contraindications. 2011 Jul 14.
12Mercola, J. Use This Superfood to Help Remove Mercury from your Tissues in Weeks. 2012 Feb 1.
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