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.