by Brad Dieter, MS, CISSN, CSCS. For most people the start of a new year is a time to plan a radical change and become healthier and happier while trying to lose weight and get in better shape.
Typically these goals are associated with a dramatic change in diet and exercise with many adopting extreme measures to get quick results. Perhaps the most dramatic and extreme diet strategy currently on the market is the HCG diet. The HCG diet has been well advertised and has been taking the diet world by storm. In fact, I personally have known quite a few people who have used the diet in attempts to lose weight.
The HCG diet is not new, in fact it has been around since the 1960’s. It is something I have been reading about for quite some time and feel like I really need to address it before thousands more “give it a shot” because they feel it is safe and it would not hurt to try. Well, I am here to set the facts straight and hopefully open your eyes to the danger of using hormone manipulation to see quick results when attempting to lose weight.
What is HCG and the HCG Diet?
Human Chorionic Gonadtropin (HCG) is a hormone obtained from the placenta of pregnant women and is very closely related in structure and function to luteinizing hormone. HCG is primarily used by physicians in their clinics to treat infertility in women (1).
The premise of the HCG diet is relatively simple and can be summarized quite briefly. On the HCG diet one must take HCG either by inject or through oral supplementation and limit your caloric intake to 500 calories a day. The HCG is purported to suppress your appetite to make the 500 calorie a day diet possible while avoiding hunger and to increase lipolysis.
Here are the requirements of the HCG diet in terms of weight loss.
In the diet program, you have to finish the HCG diet program utilizing HCG weight loss products. The dieters have to be actually committed to the diet program in order for it to be effective. The HCG diet program strategy requires an extremely low-calorie diet plan of a maximum of 500 calories each day. The program requires one to take control of your urge for food well.
What does Science Say?
Now we move on from description and explanation to the science. First, I want to discuss the properties of the diet sans HCG. When one limits their caloric intake to 500 calories a day, you are essentially undergoing starvation and your body begins to mobilize its energy stores in order for your body to continue running properly. The energy stores your body mobilizes are the fatty acids stored in your adipocytes (fat cells). HCG aside, this type of extreme caloric restriction should, in theory bring about rapid fat loss.
Now add in the HCG supplementation. HCG is purported as an appetite suppressant with one of its key contributions to this diet making it possible eat this way without succumbing to debilitating hunger. From an extensive review of the literature, I found that the research out there does not support this claim, nor is there an adequate mechanism to explain why it might work this way (2).
For argument’s sake, let’s say that HCG is indeed an effective appetite-suppressant. Is this healthy? Again, I would have to argue that this is not, and may prove to be deleterious to our health. Our appetite is a complex mechanism that has evolved over millions of years and is vital to our health. Our appetite is designed to tell our body when we need nourishment, and in a healthy, non-processed food diet, our cravings are designed to let us know what nutrients we need. I am of the opinion that suppressing appetite through hormonal manipulation and altering this mechanism is unwise, and may have long lasting effects on your brain-gut axis.
Additionally, HCG is claimed to increase the “fat-burning” of the calorie restriction. The theory behind this is that it “reprograms” the hypothalamus to increase fat oxidation. Is this true? There is no mechanistic description in the literature supporting this claim. Furthermore, I would speculate it might actually promote the opposite, especially in women. Female physiology generally favors higher levels of body fat (within healthy levels) for fertility. In fact, women who are extremely lean often have trouble becoming pregnant. If the HCG hormone is used to treat infertility, may increase fat storage over the long haul not be a possible side effect? Again, this is pure speculation and I might be missing the mark, but from the people I have seen use this diet they have indeed recovered their fat stores immediately after the diet and have actually ended up with a higher body fat percentage after their experience with HCG. This anecdotal evidence may be a place to start with research examining the long-term effects on the hormonal status of individuals who have utilized this dietary strategy for weight loss.
HCG has another secret, most cancers also produce HCG. One of the basic laboratory tests for cancer involves screening for HCG. While I could spend quite some time exploring the mechanisms of HCG and cancer, I will be brief and mention that, as per my understanding, cancers secrete HCG in order to direct nutrition and substrates to fuel their growth. However, currently, no scientific research has found a cause and effect of HCG use and cancer but the concept is intriguing. For more reading on HCG and cancer please refer to the following article (4).
What Does the Research Say for HCG and Weight Loss?
Here is perhaps my favorite of all the articles regarding the HCG diet. In a beautifully articulated argument from a paper published in March of 2012, titled “An unfortunate resurgence of human chorionic gonadotropin use for weight loss”, the authors stated, “Given that HCG has no demonstrated weight loss effects and has potential safety concerns, it is incumbent upon the scientific and clinical community in the obesity field to educate their patients about the lack of efficacy and potential risk of off -label HCG use and to speak out strongly against its use” (2).
The authors of this paper also comment on the role the HCG injections may have in the development of prostatic hyperplasia and prostrate carcinomas, gynecomastia, male breast carcinoma, leimyoma, and exacerbation of endometriosis.
A Meta-Analysis conducted on the efficacy of the HCG diet in 1995 stated the following “We conclude that there is no scientific evidence that HCG causes weight-loss, a redistribution of fat, staves off hunger or induces a feeling of well-being. Therefore, the use of HCG should be regarded as an inappropriate therapy for weight reduction” (3).
As much as I do not always agree with the FDA, in regards to their position on HCG supplementation for weight loss, I couldn’t agree more.
“The United States Food and Drug Administration has stated that over-the-counter products containing hCG are fraudulent and ineffective for weight loss. They are also not protected as homeopathic drugs and have been deemed illegal substances”.
If you are going to dedicate 2013 to becoming healthier, losing the extra weight, and exercising more, I implore you to seek healthier, more effective options. Seek out credible resources, develop a long-term plan, and focus on the health aspect of your goals; the others will fall in line once you find yourself in better health. The HCG diet is not one of those resources and in fact, may alter your metabolic processes to a point where “righting” the ship will be more difficult than had you not utilized the product/diet plan.
(1) Hoffman JR, Stout JR. Performance Enhancing Substances in Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. Eds. Baechle TR, Earle RW.2008. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL
(2) Lovejoy JC, Sasagawa M. An unfortunate resurgence of human chorionic gonadotropin use for weight loss. Int J Obes. 2012;36(3):385–386.
(3) Lijesen GKS, Theeuwen I, Assendelft WJJ, 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: 237-243
(4) Stenman U-H, Alfthan H, Hotakainen K. Human chorionic gonadotropin in cancer. Clinical Biochemistry. 2004;37(7):549–561.
BIO: Brad is a Ph.D. student at the University of Idaho studying Sport Ethics and Exercise Science. He received his M.S. degree in biomechanics from the University of Idaho and is a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He has experience as a nutrition and fitness consultant, a collegiate strength coach, and a trauma representative in the orthopedic industry.