By Pieter Cohen, MD, Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School
Update: The FDA is warning consumers that over-the-counter HCG products marketed as "weight-loss aids" are unproven and illegal. Harmful effects from these products should be reported to your health-care professional and to the FDA at: http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/default.htm.
Which of the below statements is true about the hCG diet?
- You can lose 30 pounds in one month.
- Many dieters swear by it.
- Doctors say it doesn’t work.
- The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calls hCG supplements illegal and fraudulent.
What’s remarkable is that all these statements are true. Let’s take a close look at the hCG diet to separate fact from fiction.
What is the hCG diet?
The hCG diet combines extreme calorie restriction with daily shots of a hormone produced by pregnant women called human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG).
How much can you eat on the hCG diet?
Very little. The hCG diet requires that you eat only 500 calories a day. You would hit your daily limit with one turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese and mayo.
Can you lose a lot of weight on the hCG diet?
Yes. If you don’t eat, you’ll lose weight. Skipping meals and extreme restriction of food has been used by dieters for decades to try to lose weight. If you stick to a diet of only 500 calories a day, it’s possible to lose 5 or more pounds a week.
If you lose weight fast, then why don’t doctors recommend it?
You don’t keep the weight off. Decades of research have demonstrated that if you diet by eating only 500 calories a day, you regain a lot of weight after the diet ends. It turns out that these crash diets lead to no more weight loss after one year than if you modestly reduce calories and increase exercise.
It's also unsafe. Common sense tells us that starving is not very good for our bodies. In fact, scientists have proven this as well. If you only eat 500 calories a day, there are serious health risks. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has already investigated over a dozen deaths linked to these very low calorie diets as far back as the 1970s. Click here to review their findings. Of course, most people won’t die from the hCG diet, but many will develop other health problems like hair loss, constipation and gallstones – a painful condition that often requires surgery.
What about the hCG injections – doesn’t that make the diet more effective?
No. Promoters of the hCG diet claim that when people are injected with hCG hormone they don’t feel hungry even though they’re not eating. The idea of using hCG injections to curb appetite was introduced over 50 years ago and has been carefully studied in over a dozen well-done trials. Every single well-done trial showed that the hCG injections were no better than injecting a salt-water placebo. In other words, people injected with hCG lost the same amount of weight as people injected with a salt-water placebo.
If hCG injections don’t make you lose more weight, do they make the diet safer?
Unfortunately, the injections don’t make starving yourself any safer and, in fact, might make it more dangerous. Since the use of hCG has been shown to be no better than salt-water injections for weight loss, it is not used by mainstream physicians for weight loss. Therefore the safety of injecting a pregnancy hormone into women (and men!) when they are eating so few calories has never been studied. Although hCG injections could have long-term health effects, the truth is we just don’t know.
People on the hCG diet say they don’t feel hungry. If it doesn’t work, how can that be?
It turns out that when it comes to hunger, humans are very suggestible. Probably earlier this week you weren’t at all hungry until someone starting talking about a favorite food or you lost your appetite at the sight of unappealing food. When we want to believe that a shot, whether it’s of saltwater or hormones, will make our hunger go away, our hunger sometimes does go away.
Does it really matter if it’s the medicine or the power of suggestion? If the shot helps with dieting, isn’t it worth a try?
The extreme calorie restriction is known to cause serious health problems and the safety of hCG injections in this setting is completely unknown.
Do hCG drops work?
hCG is also sold in stores and on the Internet as drops. Since injecting over a hundred international units of hCG is not proven to work for weight loss, drops which barely contain any hCG do not work.
Are hCG drops legal?
No. The hormone hCG has never been approved to be in any product sold directly to consumers. The leader of the FDA’s Internet and Fraud Team has said all such products are illegal.
I’ve heard that a physician is providing the hCG shots for weight loss. Is that legal?
Yes. After the FDA approves medications for one indication (for example, hCG is approved for treating infertility), physicians can use approved medications in any way they wish. So, even though all studies show that it doesn’t work, physicians can still legally inject anyone with hCG. Of course, the overwhelming majority of physicians would not give someone a medicine that has been proven to be ineffective.
If I'm experiencing negative side effects from the HCG diet, what should I do?
- Stop the diet if you haven’t already.
- Inform your personal physician.
- Inform the FDA.