Based on the work of a British physician in the 1950s, the HCG diet combines daily injections or liquid supplements of a hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), with severe calorie restriction (500 a day). Proponents claim HCG produces fast and hunger-free weight loss and that it targets “problem” fat areas (the belly, hips and thighs), while preserving, or even increasing, muscle mass. It has been called a miracle—and a scam.
HCG is produced in small amounts in both men and women; more is produced during pregnancy. Doctors use it, legitimately, to treat infertility. More dubiously, however, some doctors prescribe it as a weight-loss aid. A number of websites now sell nonprescription “homeopathic” formulas that you take as drops, pellets or sprays—a more “convenient” option.
What you need to know
- There’s no good evidence that the diet works. Controlled studies have shown that people lose the same amount of weight when they restrict calories to 500 a day, whether they get injections of HCG or a placebo. That is, the weight loss is due to the calorie deprivation (who wouldn’t lose weight eating so few calories?), not the injected hormone. An analysis of 24 studies in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 1995 concluded that HCG “does not bring about weight loss or fat redistribution, nor does it reduce hunger or induce a feeling of well-being.” There hasn’t been much research since then.
- Over-the-counter HCG products have not been tested in studies, and there’s no reason to think they would work, either. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers them unapproved—and thus illegal—drugs. Be wary also of websites selling injectable HCG.
- In the large doses given for infertility, HCG can cause breast tenderness, depression, shortness of breath, blood clots and other side effects. Though smaller amounts are used for weight loss, hormones have physiological effects—good or bad—at any dose. You should not take hormones even at low doses unless they are clearly necessary.
- The calorie level of the diet is dangerously low—near starvation levels—and can’t be sustained. It can cause weakness, fatigue, protein malnutrition and loss of bone minerals over time.
- The “HCG protocol”—consultation, injections (that you do yourself), blood tests and follow-up—can run hundreds of dollars a month. Web-based diet programs sell “homeopathic” HCG products for $60 or more a month.
- Like other fad diets, it’s not a long-term solution. Once you stop, the weight will return unless you make lasting diet and lifestyle changes.
Bottom Line: The HCG diet is “complete quackery,” says John Swartzberg, M.D., chair of the editorial board of Berkeley Wellness. Save your money.