Analyzing the hCG Diet

Today’s most popular crash diet is the hCG diet, which consists in eating no more than 500 calories per day, while supplementing (via regular injections prescribed by a doctor or through lozenges, sprays and drops) with the pregnancy hormone hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin). HCG is naturally produced by pregnant women to maintain the corpus luteum, which it does by causing the body to secrete the uterus-enriching hormone progesterone. Its mainstream medical usage is as an infertility treatment for women.  HCG also helps maintain testosterone production that is otherwise lowered by performance-enhancing steroids, which is why it is banned in professional sports.

What does hCG have to with weight loss? Back in the 1950s, British endocrinologist Albert Simeons claimed that when he gave it to his obese patients in India, they lost weight in just the places where they needed to lose it – but only when they coupled it with an extreme low-calorie diet. The theory was that hCG stimulated the body, when faced with near-starvation, to burn unnecessary fat rather than muscle tissue.  Proponents have also claimed that hCG supplementation suppresses hunger, making a 500-calorie diet relatively sustainable.  Since Simeons published his theories in 1954, the hCG weight-loss fad, like many others, has alternately gone in and out of style, and is currently enjoying a resurgence.

Does the diet work? It depends who you ask. Doctors who provide hCG injections and diet consultations costing over $1,000 per monthcertainly claim that it does, as do websites that offer hCG by mail-order. Also online are many anecdotal testimonies of the hCG diet’s effectiveness, of which an unknown number have been written by hCG salespeople. A Dutch study back in 1995 analyzed 14 randomized clinical trials of the hCG diet and found that in only two trials did people accomplish more on hCG – in terms of weight loss, reduced appetite, and improved figure – than on a diet with a placebo used in place of hCG. This is regardless of whether either diet worked very well at all. The FDA has said with regard to hCG:

 

“HCG has not been demonstrated to be effective adjunctive therapy in the treatment of obesity. There is no substantial evidence that it increases weight loss beyond that resulting from caloric restriction, that it causes a more attractive or “normal” distribution of fat, or that it decreases the hunger and discomfort associated with calorie­restricted diets.”

 

The American and Canadian Medical Associations have also condemned the diet. In addition to being no more effective than a placebo, hCG in excess is known to cause headaches, blood clots, leg cramps, and constipation, and may cause other health problems; its side effects in connection with a starvation diet have never been thoroughly studied.

At this point, to be confident that hCG works, you’d need to have acquaintances you know and trust who have tried it, lost weight permanently, and are still visibly healthy and active. But even if hCG has either no effect or a negative effect, what about just doing the low-calorie diet? It’s possible that hCG does function as a placebo, simply giving people the confidence to stick with the low-calorie plan they need.  But super low-calorie diets, due to malnutrition, will cause not just weight loss but also bone and muscle loss, mental deterioration, and exhaustion, so that even without hCG a 500-calorie diet is dangerous to your health. Although you will lose weight – it’s practically impossible not to when you don’t eat – you will simply gain it back when you’ve finished dieting and have gone back to the old diet that caused you to gain weight in the first place, except that this time your body will have deteriorated further due to the added strain of having dieted. Crash dieting, diet drugs, even anti-obesity surgery to some extent, has never worked, though it’s been tried many times.  If any of these strategies worked, we wouldn’t still be searching for solutions to the obesity epidemic that affects 1 in 3 Americans.

The FDA, AMA and other major government and medical organizations are somewhat culpable here, because even as they scramble to announce that the hCG diet is ineffective and dangerous, they are content to continue to put their hope in sanctioned, mainstream “quick fixes” that consistently fail to pan out.  In October of last year, the FDA had to decline three separate weight loss drugs for approval due to health risks.  Two of the drugs were new (Qnexa and lorcaserin); one had been on the market for 13 years (Meridia). Particularly since the debacle of fen-phen, a weight loss drug approved in the early 90s that was years later shown to cause potentially fatal pulmonary hypertension and heart valve problems, the FDA has had to be more strict about the drugs it approves. Nevertheless, as quoted in the article linked to above, Dr. John Jenkins of the agency’s Office of New Drugs has said that the FDA is “”committed to working toward approval” of new obesity drugs, “so long as they are safe and effective for the population for which they are intended.””

The attitude that a drug, or a device like an obesity lap band, can at some point be an effective way to combat weight gain, when validated by the FDA and our medical professionals, simply encourages the average person to think that they can get away with focusing on the symptom of the problem and simply rely on a quick fix (like the hCG diet).  While this is profitable for both the pharmaceutical industry and the supplement industry, it doesn’t really help those who are overweight.  We in fact need to deal with the root cause of the problem by making sound long-term diet and lifestyle changes. But as I discussed in my article on MyPlate, since the government’s approach to diet and lifestyle is severely flawed, people are extra disinclined to deal with the root causes.

If diet and lifestyle changes are made wisely, however – without crash dieting, excessively restricting foods, or even more than the most moderate exercise – those who need to lose weight will lose about 1.5 to 2 pounds a week, or about 40 pounds in six months. This weight loss will continue until a healthy weight is achieved. This is what has been achieved by clients of mine who have followed my recommendations to eat a balanced diet of whole foods. The best part is that they don’t have to change the way they eat once they’ve reached their weight loss goal, because they aren’t eating to lose weight in the first place, just to be healthy. The weight loss simply happens naturally.  One thing we tend to forget easily is that the human body is meant to be a healthy weight. We think that we need to punish and manipulate our bodies to get them to the weight that’s healthy – but in fact it’s the opposite: we’re punishing and manipulating them when we load them up with high fructose corn syrup, toxins, artificial flavors, free radicals, and hydrogenated oils, and when we’re sedentary instead of active. When you have a willing spirit and the knowledge of how to go about it, getting healthy and in shape is actually one of the easiest and most fun things you can do – no supplementary hormones required.

How to Approach Antioxidants

Antioxidants are one of today’s most popular nutrient groups. Many health books and articles have been written extolling their virtues. Capitalizing on this popularity, food producers tend to prominently advertise the antioxidant content of the beverages, cereals, teas and other items they offer, often directly supplementing their products with antioxidants to increase nutrient content. As with vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and digestive enzymes, the presence of antioxidants is a persuasive signifier of a given supplement or food’s health benefits. However, to really benefit from antioxidants, we must understand why and in what context they are valuable.  Simply consuming more foods that are advertised as containing them (e.g. green tea, chocolate, and red wine) is too simplistic, and can have negative consequences for health.

In order to comprehend antioxidants, we first have to discuss their counterparts, free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that our bodies generate in order to neutralize toxins as well as pathogens such as bad bacteria, viruses and fungi.  Due to reacting with oxygen in a process known as oxidation, free radical molecules lack the electrons they need to be chemically stable. The way they neutralize is by stealing an electron from another molecule, which then itself becomes a free radical. Our bodies use free radicals to start a chain reaction of molecule destruction among whatever toxin or pathogen has invaded our system. Free radicals are also created by our bodies when we’re stressed out, physically injured, or when we exercise.

It’s clear that free radicals play an important role in our immunity. However, if we have too many free radicals active in our systems, they will begin turning on the body’s own cells, damaging those cells’ DNA and turning their molecules into additional free radicals.  This process of cell breakdown, continuing unchecked, is linked to the development of cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart disease, liver damage, premature aging, emphysema, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, unchecked free radical proliferation may be the most ubiquitous health problem of our time.

Excessive free radical activity can be caused by too-frequent stress, infection, or exposure to toxins (toxins include cigarette smoke, polluted air and industrial pollutants, pesticides and herbicides, certain prescription drugs, and radiation), or by too-frequent consumption of rancid vegetable oils, which contain high amounts of free radicals due to their oxidization during high-heat cooking, processing, and lengthy exposure to light. If we’re facing any of these problems, how are we supposed to neutralize the free radicals? Enter antioxidants.

Antioxidants are molecules that are capable of “donating” electrons to free radicals to stabilize them, while remaining stable themselves. Our bodies manufacture some antioxidants, just as they manufacture free radicals. However, a major part of our antioxidant need is supplied by dietary nutrients. Examples of antioxidants are vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin B9, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, and a class of nutrients called polyphenols (which contain another class known as bioflavnoids).

It’s easy to see why antioxidants are touted as being so important. Who would not want to add to their diet nutrients that reduce the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, and the other diseases listed above? But rather than fall into the misconception that all we need to do to protect ourselves is eat more foods that are advertised as containing antioxidants, we need to take a holistic approach to the situation. We need a healthy amount of both free radicals and antioxidants. It may be that production of free radicals needs to be reduced, rather than antioxidants increased, as excessive antioxidant intake can cause problems of its own. Also, we should get our antioxidants from whole, natural foods, rather than from either 1. antioxidant supplements, 2. processed foods to which antioxidants have been added, or 3. foods that naturally contain them but also contain potentially harmful ingredients. I recommend that the following strategy should be used for developing a healthy balance between free radical and antioxidant levels:

 

1.      Reduce stress. If you are under continual stress, antioxidants can help somewhat, but the best thing you can do for your health is to actually resolve the stress in whatever way is right and appropriate. There is no way that diet alone can compensate for the damage to health done by ongoing mental and emotional stress.

2.      Reduce exposure to the environmental toxins listed above. One way to do this is by increasing consumption of organic food vs. conventional, and exchanging the conventional cleaning and self care products in your home for those with natural ingredients. Quitting smoking and cutting back on prescription drugs where appropriate will also help.

3.      Avoid consumption of rancid vegetable oils (e.g. fried foods from fast food restaurants). When purchasing vegetable oil for home cooking, choose olive, sesame, sunflower or corn oil that is cold-pressed and contained in dark glass bottles. Use coconut oil or lard from naturally raised pigs for high-heat cooking.

4.      Eat more of the following whole, natural foods that contain antioxidants: all vegetables, but especially leafy green vegetables; all fruits, especially berries; vegetable oils processed in the healthy way described above; dairy products from grass-fed cows; organic eggs; beans; whole grains; all herbs and spices, but especially turmeric, oregano and cinnamon

5.      Moderate your intake of foods that contain antioxidants, but which can actually reduce mineral absorption when consumed in excess: green tea, chocolate, red wine, spinach, swiss chard, and soybeans (unless cooked with kombu, a sea vegetable).

 

Ultimately, the point is that we should not reflexively think “I need that, it has antioxidants,” but focus on eating a diet of whole natural foods, balancing that diet based on our cravings, and reducing stress and exposure to toxins and rancid oils.  If we take that approach, our freeradical/antioxidant balance can be trusted to take care of itself, and we’ll have greatly reduced our risk for the diseases mentioned earlier. This is a holistic approach, one that accounts for both the nutrients we know and those we have not yet discovered. It can be relied upon regardless of what dietary trend is popular at the moment, and will not lead us down the path of eating in an unbalanced way even as we’re trying to get healthier.