The hCG diet, explained: Is it 'extremely efficient' or 'life threatening'?

What is the hCG diet? (Photo: Trunk Archive)
What is the hCG diet? (Photo: Trunk Archive)

If you’re looking for a quick and effective way to lose weight, chances are you’ve heard about the hCG diet. The three-week crash diet promises to help people drop large amounts of weight with the aid of injections of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone produced by cells formed in the placenta during pregnancy that is said to help reduce feelings of hunger, thus allowing people to eat very little.

The hormone is also said to keep dieters from losing muscle while calorie-cutting, despite their being unable to exercise during the diet, due to low energy levels. This is one reason for the hCG diet’s prominence, as muscle wasting is a common side effect in crash-diet weight loss. Supposedly, hCG helps to elevate levels of other hormones in the body, including testosterone, creating an anabolic (muscle-building) state to counteract muscle loss.

In other forms of the hCG diet, people use over-the-counter products such as drops to ingest the hormone orally. These products are illegal, however, and are not proven to raise blood levels of hCG, thus leaving dieters feeling hungry.

Critics argue that the 500-calorie-per-day intake is responsible for the drastic weight loss associated with the diet, not the hCG hormone itself. The diet requires that those 500 calories consist of only one vegetable per meal, prohibit the use of oil, and adhere to low-fat macronutrient ratios.

Dieters prepare with two days of fat loading and then cut out most fats, and they lose several pounds per day over the course of the diet. Despite the supposed metabolic reset that the diet claims to stimulate, dieters often report feeling weak while cutting calories and then struggling to maintain their weight loss after the diet ends.

Still, the hCG diet has gained cultlike support from people who lose large amounts of weight in very little time. Blogs with tips for effectively dieting using hCG and weight loss success stories nurture a community of fanatical dieters who swear by the hormone. Perhaps the most prominent of these blogs is written by Rayzel Lam, better known as HCG Chica, who lost more than 50 pounds using hCG injections and created a program to help people maintain their weight loss post-hCG diet.

“To me, the hCG protocol is an extremely efficient use of your time and energy,” Lam tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “You focus on your weight loss for three to six weeks; then you can move to a maintenance level of eating and go back to focusing on the other important things in your life. If I can spend three to six weeks focusing on this weight loss and then go back to a maintenance level, rather than undereating for, say, six months to one year to lose that 15 to 20 pounds, for me this is a much more realistic approach psychologically.”

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Indeed, Lam admits that hCG fits the dictionary definition of a crash diet. “The purpose of those who embark on this protocol is certainly to achieve rapid results, and it accomplishes that for most who do it,” she says. “The question is: Is that a bad thing?”

Many health professionals would argue that crash dieting is indeed a bad thing. “Aside from impacting your blood sugar and insulin levels in a negative way, the method of bingeing and skipping meals will also affect your mood, energy levels, and put you at an increased risk of getting headaches and dizziness,” registered dietitian-nutritionist Beth Warren tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The eating behaviors also contribute to a poor relationship with food and promote bad eating behaviors that, over time, will contribute to weight gain and a greater difficulty in future weight loss.”

Proponents of the diet are the first to admit that hCG is physically and emotionally draining, though. “This protocol is difficult and can be taxing on the body, especially if done in an unwise way,” says Lam, who used hCG injections without her doctor’s supervision. “For instance, doing multiple rounds of the diet back to back without giving your body a nice break in between to balance out and normalize, or staying on the diet for too long a time.”

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Author, blogger, and registered nurse Lynette Sheppard agrees, explaining, “There was one woman who was a cop who stopped after three days because she had brain fog and she suffered from really not feeling well. She had to be on top of it, she’s a cop, so she had to stop.”

Despite using the hCG injections instead of the homeopathic drops that reportedly do not curb hunger, Sheppard felt physically drained throughout the diet, but not hungry. “It’s an easier diet to do if you work at home or you can take some time off. Some people feel great, they feel almost euphoric on it, but I did not. My holistic physician and his wife said they felt really great. I did not feel really great. I felt fine, but I didn’t feel great, and I felt tired every afternoon.” Sheppard, as a nurse, was able to administer her own injections with the approval of her doctor.

Still, Warren argues that too many doctors are willing to prescribe hCG without sufficient knowledge. “I’m seeing more often doctors that do not specialize in weight promoting the hCG diet and prescribing the shots. This is as unsafe as going to anyone who does not have the expertise and background in diet and weight loss,” says Warren. “The public should only seek out medical professionals, such as registered dietitians, who are experts in the weight loss area to ensure you reach your weight loss goals in a safe and sustainable manner. Just because a doctor has the ability to prescribe medications doesn’t mean he or she has the qualifications necessary to do so.”

And while many dieters report weight gain after returning to normal eating habits, some, like Lam, are certainly able to keep the weight off. “I am approaching my five-year anniversary of maintaining my weight loss from hCG injections in November,” says Lam. “I have not done any diets since I finished losing that weight in November of 2012. I make small corrections of two to three pounds here and there when needed; that is all. I don’t care what diet you research or how healthy the mainstream media thinks such a diet is, it is not common to find individuals who have been maintaining their weight loss this long.” Lam also argues that injecting the hormone helped her to prevent muscle wasting during her weight loss, a theory that Warren does not believe is possible.

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Sheppard did not have such luck with maintaining her 15-pound weight loss, though. “I kept it off for a few years and then went to France. And you still need to eat properly afterwards; you can eat but you have to avoid a whole bunch of things like sugars and refined flour,” she says. “So yes, I put the weight back on.” The next time she attempted to lose weight, she decided to forgo the hCG diet in favor of the Fast Metabolism diet, which she calls “much more humane.”

Still, Sheppard believes in the metabolic reset that the hCG diet is said to spur, though she’s not convinced that it can help maintain weight loss in the long term. “I think that any diet can actually reset your metabolism if you follow it as it’s designed,” says Sheppard. “I don’t think it’s unique in that. I think it probably did do a reset, but does that reset last? That depends on how you eat after that, how you keep up with your exercise, and on a whole bunch of factors,” she says.

But Warren insists that following the hCG diet as it’s designed is unsafe, and she believes that it actually slows the metabolism. “The only way to make this diet healthier is to increase calories to a safe level, at about 1,200 per day. The hCG isn’t shown to add benefit of causing any more weight loss than an otherwise balanced diet of a safe calorie restriction. In other words, to make the hCG diet safe, you will in essence not be doing the actual protocol.”

And despite testimonials of success, Warren does not believe that hCG can healthfully foster long-term weight loss. She says that “hCG is not only an ineffective way to lose weight over time, but due to its muscle-wasting results and decrease in metabolism, it is dangerous and can be life threatening. Whether it be the unknown combinations inside the supplement [Ed. note: Said supplements are illegal], the heavy calorie restriction, the eating behaviors and foods recommended, or the overall diet, the hCG is one of the worst diets out there.”

Extreme weight loss like Rayzel Lam’s speaks volumes about the power of calorie restriction, but the jury is still out on whether hCG injections and the entire hCG protocol are safe or effective.

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