Maria here. Hello and welcome back to the Diet Review Series where we review different diets from a nutritional standpoint. Today, we’re covering a weird one – the HCG diet plan that requires people to both eat very, very little and inject themselves with pregnancy hormones.
Rachael Link, our in-house dietitian, gives the HCG diet plan an “F” and for good reason. Enter Rachael:
The HCG diet plan is the latest fad diet sweeping the Internet. A quick Google search reveals hundreds of success stories, all claiming that shooting up with the “pregnancy hormone” and following an HCG diet plan caused their weight to plummet.
I’m at an age where a good deal of my friends, coworkers, and peers are beginning to get pregnant and start families. In all honesty, I’ve never heard any of them talking about how great they feel when the pregnancy hormones start flowing or wishing they could bottle them up to enjoy the feelings of early pregnancy all the time.
I’m sure the feeling of carrying a new life is incredible, but it’s much more common that I hear lamenting about feeling nauseous all the time or groaning about how nothing fits anymore.
You can imagine my surprise to hear about a diet where people intentionally inject themselves with HCG to shed pounds. After all, doesn’t it seem a little counterintuitive to use a pregnancy hormone to lose weight?
Human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG, is a hormone produced during pregnancy.
This hormone is essentially responsible for promoting the secretion of another hormone, progesterone, especially during the first trimester.
HCG is traditionally prescribed by doctors in the form of either injections or sublingual tablets to treat fertility problems. It has not been approved for over-the-counter use or proven to have benefits on weight loss.
So how did it go from a fertility treatment to the latest weight loss fad?
It was Dr. A Simeons who initially began using HCG as a component in the treatment of obesity in 1954 in what was originally dubbed The Simeons Method.
This rigid regimen had some very specific guidelines:
- No more than 500 calories were consumed daily
- 125 units of HCG were injected six times per week over eight weeks
- Only two meals were permitted per day
- For each meal, patients selected one item from four food groups, including protein, vegetable, bread, and fruit
- Suggested protein sources were 3.5 oz of meat, 3.75 oz of fish, 4 ounces of Hoop cheese, or 6 egg whites
- Total protein intake ranged from 45-50 grams daily
The Simeons Method quickly gained traction in the 1970s as supporters claimed it helped spur rapid weight loss and “reset” metabolism while reducing the hunger, weakness, and the other negative side effects that occur when you’re basically starving yourself.
As is the fate of most crazy fad diets, the HCG diet plan eventually faded back into oblivion when it was debunked by a series of clinical trials.
Recently, however, the HCG diet plan has been dragged from the grave back into the limelight.
Featured by the ever-reputable Dr. Oz, the HCG diet has been “revamped” by physicians like Dr. Emma who have taken a diet that was entirely ineffective and made it work by changing absolutely nothing. And all for the low price of just $700!
Before you start injecting yourself with god knows what, let’s break down the HCG diet plan a little further:
1. The HCG diet plan is illegal.
Let’s start with the biggest red flag from the HCG diet plan: its legal status (or lack thereof).
According to the FDA, HCG weight-loss products make unsupported claims, are not approved for over-the-counter sale, are potentially dangerous, and are illegal.
All homeopathic drug products must comply with the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States, a document that lists all active ingredients that can be included in homeopathic drug products legally. HCG is not included on the list of safe ingredients and therefore is not allowed.
The FDA warns those that have purchased HCG products to discontinue use and toss it ASAP.
Furthermore, they report that companies who continue to sell illegal HCG products could face criminal prosecution and legal penalties. Yikes.
2. The HCG diet plan is crazy expensive.
As far as illegal substances go, HCG can get pretty pricy. In fact, if anything, you’ll definitely lose some weight on this diet because you’ll have to empty out your wallet just to pay for it!
One New Jersey clinic advertises their 4-week “all-inclusive” program starting at the low price of just $699—what a bargain!
If you’re willing to venture into online shopping, one website claims that you can “loose” up to 15 pounds in 26 days for the low price of $297 with their HCG products. That’s a little more risky, though; after all, do you really want to buy injections from someone without a basic grasp of spelling (or access to spell check at least)?
Unless you have wads of cash you’re just itching to blow, why not spend that money on embarking on a healthy lifestyle that is actually effective and sustainable? $297 is more than enough to join a gym, start healthy exercise habits, take a cooking class, or stock your kitchen with ingredients that will help get you started on your journey towards better health.
3. The hormones you’re getting on the HCG diet plan are probably fake.
Despite the upstanding reputation that people selling illegal homeopathic drugs on the Internet have as being honest and moral individuals, most HCG available online is fake. Shocking, I know.
This is because HCG is typically marketed as a homeopathic product.
Homeopathy refers to a process in which a medicinal substance is diluted for use as a treatment. In the case of HCG, this process probably leaves little to no trace of true HCG in the final product.
Yes, those are some seriously expensive sugar pills.
The only way to ensure that you’re getting authentic HCG is by getting a prescription from your doctor.
4. Simply put: the HCG diet plan doesn’t work.
Can you lose weight on the HCG diet plan? Of course. But will it be because of the HCG or the extremely restrictive diet you’re following? That’s a better question.
See, the original HCG diet plan fell out of favor when a number of clinical trials came to the same conclusion: any weight loss experienced on the diet was due to the fact that you’re literally eating a quarter of the calories of a normal diet (go figure).
In 1977, a study on the HCG diet plan was published in the Western Journal of Medicine. 20 participants all adhered to the dietary components of the HCG diet plan, but half received HCG injections while half got a placebo. Ultimately, while all participants lost weight, it was concluded that there was no significant difference between groups and all weight loss was attributed to the diet rather than the HCG.
A 1995 meta-analysis compared the results of 24 studies analyzing the effectiveness of the HCG diet plan. Of the 14 randomized trials included, 12 found that the degree of weight loss was the same with the use of HCG as with the use of a placebo or with diet only.
At the height of the HCG craze, the Canadian Medical Association Journal put out a report titled: “Human chorionic gonadotropin is of no value in the management of obesity.” In the report, it details how HCG has not been shown to have an effect on appetite, hunger, or fat mobilization and dismisses HCG as an ineffective treatment for weight loss.
Bottom line: yes, eating 500 calories a day will cause weight loss. Pumping yourself with HCG will not.
5. The HCG diet plan comes with some unpleasant side effects.
Pretty much anytime you’re injecting things into yourself, there are bound to be some side effects.
According to Mayo Clinic, some of the awesome symptoms you might expect with the HCG diet plan include:
- Edema (fluid buildup)
- Gynecomastia (swelling of the breasts in men)
- Blood clots
- Gallstone formation
- Irregular heartbeat
Who would’ve thought that injecting yourself with a hormone produced by pregnant women would lead to swelling, fatigue, and irritability? I wonder if you also develop weird food cravings and start nesting?
Furthermore, you’ll also get some fun side effects with that severe calorie restriction.
When your body is essentially forced to find other sources of energy because you’re not giving it what it needs, it can start to produce ketones and break down muscle to scavenge amino acids for fuel.
Additionally, your body will try to adapt to getting just 500 calories a day by conserving energy and slowing your metabolism. Unless you plan on following this diet indefinitely (which is obviously not recommended), this can have lasting effects for when you decide to resume a normal diet again.
HCG Diet Plan Report Card
500 calories a day is not sustainable. Neither is wasting hundreds of dollars a month on ineffective pills and potions in pursuit of weight loss.
The only reason the HCG diet plan doesn’t get a F when it comes to effectiveness is because you will lose weight with the severe calorie restriction, though it’s not necessarily from the HCG component of this diet. How long that weight loss will last is another story altogether.
Your body needs a good mix of nutrients to survive and thrive. At just 500 calories a day, it’s pretty much impossible to give your body everything it needs.
Final Grade: F
My recommendation: There’s no evidence to support the HCG diet plan. Not only is it ineffective, it’s also unsafe and unnecessarily expensive.
Instead of undertaking a crash diet and injecting yourself with questionable substances, slow and gradual weight loss is the way to go. Start an exercise regimen, increase your servings of fruits and vegetables, and reduce portion sizes if weight loss is your goal.
Have you heard of the HCG diet plan? Would you ever try it? Sound off in the comments below!
Birmingham CL, Smith KC. Human chorionic gonadotropin is of no value in the management of obesity. Can Med Assoc J. 1983;128(10):1156-7.
Greenway FL, Bray GA. Human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) in the treatment of obesity: a critical assessment of the Simeons method. West J Med. 1977;127(6):461-3.
Lijesen GK, Theeuwen I, Assendelft WJ, Van der wal G. 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;40(3):237-43.