The ugly truth about the HCG diet in 2016
The HCG diet has been around for decades, but does it work and is it safe?
I’m not going to mince words: I’m calling the HCG diet yet another gimmicky, too-good-to-be-true, quick-fix diet which will leave you lighter in the wallet and less healthy in the long run.
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The diet regained popularity between 2010 and 2013 but has since lost momentum as we come into 2016. Nevertheless, it is still being sold on the internet despite the preponderance of scientific evidence showing that it has no effect on fat loss beyond that which can be accomplished by a healthy lifestyle.
What is the HCG diet?
HCG stands for human chorionic gonadotropin and is the hormone produced by women during pregnancy. In the 1950s, British physician Dr. Albert T. Simeons used HCG injections for the treatment of obesity. He suggested that the addition of HCG to a reduced-calorie diet might help dieters stay on track (adherence), reduce hunger cravings during food restriction, and promote fat loss.
The Simeons HCG protocol entailed daily injections of 125 international units (IU) six times per week for a total of 40 injections. The diet component consisted of 500 calories per day broken up into two daily meals.
You can easily buy HCG online in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The internet is littered with commercial websites promoting HCG as a weight loss panacea. The sites are egregiously biased to sell product and do a masterful job of overcoming objections and giving visitors that sliver of hope that it “might” work (even though the boloney detector says no). Unfortunately, these websites also crowd out reliable unbiased sites that aim to protect consumers.
Even more reputable sites like Amazon let a lot of “woo” slip through the cracks. Check out this Amazon advertisement and you can see for yourself how false and misleading the claims are (i.e., “Lose a pound a day.” Yep, maybe a pound of muscle, carbohydrate, and body water, but it certainly won’t be a pound of fat). Keep reading for more details.
False and misleading HCG claims
In the image below, you can see the types of deceptive tactics used by HCG sellers. I note that this advert refers to the HCG drops and not the injections which would need to be administered by a medical professional.
- No prescription required capitalises on the notion that it’s not a “poisonous pharmaceutical”
- The claim of “natural weight loss” doesn’t really mean much but it plays on consumer fears of “chemicals”
- The claim you can lose 1-2 pounds (~0.5 to 1 kg) per day is deceptive and misleading. It is not physiologically possible to lose this much fat in 24 hours. Crash diets are unhealthy and can set you back in the long-term.
- The claim that homeopathic HCG is safe is likely due to the fact that it has no effect in the body, but the claim that it’s effective is false.
- “Same results as in an HCG clinic” is competition bashing meant to lower your guard and make you think it’s easy to lose weight without the hassle of going to a clinic.
- “Proven to increase your energy levels” is a false claim. No scientific evidence supports this.
- “HCG converts fat into nutrients without loss of muscle” is a false claim. Converts fat into what nutrients?
Legal action against HCG marketers
In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) came down on several HCG marketers for making false claims exactly like those in the above image. Even more disturbing is that they sold their products through major retail outlets like GNC, Rite Aid, and Walgreens. This is particularly concerning since consumers might assume the products are safe and effective since they are sold in reputable pharmacies.
The FTC maintains that Kevin Write and his companies, HCG Platinum and Right Way Nutrition, LLC, promise consumers that HCG Platinum liquid drops will cause fast and significant weight loss similar to that of the endorsers in their advertisements.
Dr Oz HCG diet stamp of approval
The HCG diet even made the rounds on the Dr Oz show. This might sound like the stamp of approval you’re looking for, but before you get too excited, let’s not forget Dr Oz has copped a lot of heat in recent years for peddling bogus weight loss remedies. Many high ranking doctors and academics have even called for his resignation from Columbia University for his promotion of quackery.
In one of his segments, he gave airtime to a woman who is pushing her own rebranded version of the HCG diet. She claims to have conducted “research” but, in fact, this was nothing more than an impromptu “study” she pulled together that was not reviewed by other scientists (called “peer-review”). The only “evidence” she has for her diet is that she was on the Dr Oz show, and that’s no evidence at all.
HCG diet research
In the early to mid 1970s, HCG diet studies started surfacing in peer-reviewed medical journals. A 1973 study by Asher and Harper showed positive results but was later slammed for poor methodology, with subsequent studies consistently debunking its use as ineffective for weight loss.
1983 HCG review article
A 1983 report published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reviewed all evidence up to that point and concluded that:
- “HCG has no known effect on fat mobilization, appetite, or sense of hunger, or body fat distribution.
- HCG has not been demonstrated to be effective adjunctive therapy for obesity.
- There is no evidence that it increases weight loss beyond that resulting from caloric restriction.
- There is no evidence that it causes a more attractive or “normal” distribution of fat.
- There is no evidence that it decreases the hunger and discomfort associated with calorie-restricted diets.
- Adverse effects may include headache, irritability, restlessness, depression, fatigue, edema, precocious puberty, gynecomastia, pain at injection site.
1995 HCG meta-analysis
A 1995 meta-analysis (a combined statistical analysis) published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology evaluated 8 uncontrolled and 16 controlled research reports. The authors concluded:
- Most studies were of poor methodological quality (scores ranged from 16 to 73 points baed on a 100 point scale. Higher points meant better quality)
- Of the 12 studies that scored 50 or more points, only one reported that HCG was useful
- There is no scientific evidence that HCG is effective in the treatment of obesity
- HCG does not bring about weight loss or fat redistribution
- HCG does not reduce hunger or induce a feeling of well-being
For a more detailed breakdown of the evidence, you can read Joe Cannon’s HCG research review here.
HCG injections vs. sublingual HCG drops
One of the most blatantly obvious holes in the HCG diet marketing armor is the fact that they trump up the outdated claims by Dr. Simeons and conveniently neglect to mention that all early research was based upon HCG injections.
As of this writing, there is absolutely no credible evidence to suggest that sublingual HCG (under the tongue) has any effect on fat loss and preservation of muscle.
In the image below, the advertiser falsely claims that HCG drops are “clinically proven” (which means nothing) and are effective for inducing ridiculously large amounts of daily weight loss (not fat loss). They also take liberties by making it look like it has been approved by the FDA.
A promotional website for oral HCG has links for additional “research and information” but when I visited the page and examined the references, it was obvious that nearly all the studies were just general obesity papers that had little or no bearing whatsoever on the usefulness of sublingual HCG drops.
500 calorie HCG diet
Though HCG diet advertisers spout off the benefits of their sublingual drops, they neglect to mention that this is simply a very low 500 calorie diet. There is no question that weight loss will occur on such an irresponsibly low and unsupervised regimen, but I would question the extent to which HCG diet drops play a role in this weight loss.
This tactic is nothing new. Other questionable products such as Calorad have banked on this technique by duping consumers into eating a low-calorie diet and then hoodwinking them into thinking the weight loss was a result of the product.
HCG diet limitations and warnings
1) Muscle loss
A VERY important drawback to low-calorie regimens like the HCG diet is the fact that not only will you lose fat, but your body will break down valuable muscle necessary to stoke the flames of your metabolism.
Such a low calorie regimen cannot be realistically maintained for an extended period of time and, when you go back to eating normally, your reduced muscle mass (lower metabolism) will leave you more susceptible to weight regain (yo-yo dieting).
A 500 calorie diet is very low energy and ideally should be supervised by a responsible bariatric physician or university-qualified dietitian (not a self-styled “nutritionist”). Generally speaking, a diet of less than 1200 calories is likely to be nutritionally deficient in terms of the main macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat) and vitamins and minerals.
I see that the HCG promoters include a B-complex vitamin, but this is like brining a band-aid to a train crash. This should not lull you into a false sense of safety. If you have underlying health issues such as poorly controlled diabetes or other metabolic conditions, you should first visit your doctor for guidance.
3) Unrealistic weight loss
Promotional materials for the HCG diet tout that you can expect to lose 1-2 pounds (1/2 to 1 kg) per day. Responsible health practitioners recommend a safe and healthy weight loss of approximately 1-2 pounds per week, NOT per day.
Any rapid weight loss, particularly that induced by such a drastically low-calorie regimen, will activate the body’s famine response which will reduce your metabolism and make your body more resistant to giving up its fat stores.
4) Hallmark signs of quackery
One website promotes “the HCG diet is considered one of the fastest and safest ways to lose weight and keep it off.”
There is no legitimate, independent scientific evidence to corroborate this claim. There is no such thing as both “fast” and “safe” weight loss. As I stated above, healthy weight loss should fall in the range of 1-2 pounds (1/2 to 1 kg) of fat per week. See my article on 13 ways to keep fat off for life.
The claim that HCG will help you “keep it off” is completely misguided. After coming off a 500 calorie diet, you’re likely to not only gain back the lost weight, but will probably end up fatter than before you started the diet.
5) Doctor recommended
This is one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to selling hokey diets and nostrums. The world loves to slam doctors for knowing nothing about nutrition, yet the minute a doctor puts out a diet book or hawks a miracle weight loss product, everyone jumps on the bandwagon to shell out their hard earned cash.
So what’s it going to be? You can’t have both.
In the case of the HCG diet, as I said, this is a very low calorie regimen and really SHOULD be supervised by a responsible physician. But save your money on the HCG portion, as its use is not supported by the preponderance of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
6) Homeopathic HCG diet
It was only a matter of time until the homeopathy camp jumped on the bandwagon to get their share of the pie. As with sublingual HCG drops, there is no objective evidence that a homeopathic version would have any impact on weight loss. In fact, because it is diluted to the point that the original active ingredient no longer exists, it is unlikely to exert any effect in the body.
Does the HCG diet work?
I wish there was such thing as magic weight loss drops, but unfortunately the HCG diet is unlikely to result in any lasting weight loss (losing weight is easy, keeping it off is difficult).
Bear in mind these final take home points:
- The scientific evidence strongly refutes popular marketing claims and any weight loss experienced is attributable to the extreme reduction in caloric intake.
- Outdated “evidence” used to promote the product has since been discredited by the mainstream scientific community.
- HCG marketing is egregiously false and deceptive and does more to confuse consumers than genuinely inform. Federal action has been taken against HCG sellers for such false claims.
I recommend avoiding HCG diet, as it is yet another unsubstantiated quick-fix diet which is unlikely to result in long-term weight loss and weight loss maintenance.
- Asher WL, Harper HW.
Am J Clin Nutr. 1973 Feb;26(2):211-8.
Effect of human chorionic gonadotrophin on weight loss, hunger, and feeling of well-being.
- Ballin JC, White PL.
JAMA. 1974 Nov 4;230(5):693-4.
Fallacy and hazard. Human chorionic gonadotropin-500-calorie diet and weight reduction.
- Young RL, Fuchs RJ, Woltjen MJ.
JAMA. 1976 Nov 29;236(22):2495-7.
Chorionic gonadotropin in weight control. A double-blind crossover study.
- Birmingham CL, Smith KC.
Can Med Assoc J. 1983 May 15;128(10):1156-7.
Human chorionic gonadotropin is of no value in the management of obesity.
- G K Lijesen, I Theeuwen, W J Assendelft, and G Van Der Wal
Br J Clin Pharmacol. 1995 September; 40(3): 237–243.
The effect of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) in the treatment of obesity by means of the Simeons therapy: a criteria-based meta-analysis.
- Harvard Womens Health Watch
What Do You Know About the HCG Diet?