If you’ve done any research on weight loss and “diets”, you’ve almost certainly come across the hCG diet. Believers say you can lose 40 pounds in a little over a month’s time. Wow! Sounds too good to be true, right? That’s because it usually is.

The hCG diet, for those unfamiliar or needing a reminder, is a strict 500 calories PER DAY, along with a regiment of hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) injections. Before going further, let’s discuss hCG itself. What is it? What does it do? And why would anyone think it would be useful for weight loss?

Well, if you’re a female and have ever taken a pregnancy test, you’re quite familiar with hCG. If the test is positive, you’ve got extra hCG, if negative, you’ve got the normal low ranges. hCG is a hormone that interacts with the ovary at the beginning of pregnancy, encouraging the secretion of another hormone, progesterone, to promote proper growth of the uterus and fetus. In cases of infertility, hCG injections may be used to help trigger ovulation and stimulate testosterone synthesis. Long and short? hCG is ONLY really present in WOMEN when they are PREGNANT. It’s purpose? Maintain nutrition supply necessary by helping to ensure there is adequate blood sugar levels to keep the growing baby doing just that – growing. This hormone, while present in very low doses in both men and women normally, is produced by the placenta during pregnancy, an organ that ONLY exists when a woman is pregnant.

Elevated hCG levels without pregnancy? This is a marker for a tumor. Increased hCG levels in men typically can signify testicular cancer. In women, it is often a sign of breast or uterine cancer. In other words, unless you’re pregnant, excess hCG is NOT a good thing. In fact, increased hCG levels outside of pregnancy are almost exclusively related to disease (cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, an ulcer, inflammatory bowel disease).

Ok, so, how did this lovely, life-sustaining hormone suddenly get into the weight loss game? Well, someone (a scientist who did very poor, unscientific “research”)  decided that if hCG during pregnancy helped mobilize energy (fat) stores for the fetus, it would do the same in a non-pregnant setting, encouraging fat loss instead of muscle breakdown. Sounds interesting and even perhaps plausible, right? Here’s the thing, if there’s no baby present, no placenta telling the body that there is another little living creature trying to grow and needing resources, the body has no need to “breakdown” fat.  This is also perhaps a good reason that hCG levels go UP in cancer. Cancer cells are ravenous, constantly trying to pull “food” from the body to feed themselves and multiply.  So, I suppose if you think cancer is a good way to lose weight, the hCG approach might be a good one for you, too! (Kidding; the point is, cancer patients lose massive amounts of weight because the cancer consumes massive amount of fuel; increasing one’s hCG levels to promote energy mobilization – fat moving out of fat stores – does nothing if the body has no where to put it/use it.)

It’s also important to note this fact from the FDA: hCG has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective in the treatment of obesity or weight control. There is no substantial evidence that HCG increases weight loss beyond that resulting from caloric restriction, that it causes a more attractive or “normal” distribution of fat, or that it decreases the hunger and discomfort associated with calorie-restrictive diets.

So, if your body has nowhere to put the mobilized fat, what’s the point of the hCG? Well, the other half of this “diet” is the incredibly low, dangerously low calorie intake – a mere 500 calories per day. To put this in perspective, when you come to see us at CoreLife, we recommend you simply reduce your intake by 500 calories a day, an amount that many struggle to achieve.  The hCG diet says you can ONLY have that amount each day. The diet goes on to suggest that because of the low calorie intake, your body will obviously have to get fuel somewhere else (muscle or fat stores), and the hCG will tell your body to use fat instead of breaking down muscle. Sorry, guys, I’m here to tell you that if you are trying to sustain yourself on a mere 500 calories, your body will use your fat stores over your muscle stores ANYWAY. At 500 calories a day, your body is in literal starvation mode. It begins to shut down all non-essential “personnel”, attempting to conserve energy so that when food does become available again, it will be capable of pursuing it. Think of our ancient hunger/gatherer relatives.  In times of scarcity, if their bodies broke down muscle instead of fat for energy, when food became available (a herd of elk moving through, fruit high up in trees becoming ripe), they would be incapable of hunting or gathering because their body had used up their muscles and left them mere blobs of fat stores. That wouldn’t be very beneficial for survival, now would it? Instead, in times of severe scarcity (like 500 calories a day), our bodies are programmed at their core to use fat and preserve muscle, no “added” hCG is necessary.

To further emphasize the severity of this diet approach, here’s a sample “day” on 500 calories: Coffee (black) with an orange for breakfast, a small piece of plain white fish and a bit of raw asparagus for lunch, perhaps a small piece of fruit in the afternoon, and a small amount (2ish oz) of seafood (think 2-3 shrimp), raw spinach, a cracker or two, and tea for dinner. For 40 days. Again, a reduction in just 500 calories a day will result in a one pound weight loss by the end of a week. So let’s take Joe as an example. Joe currently consumes a 2,500 calorie diet and that is maintaining his current weight. However, he wants to lose some weight. So, at CoreLife, we would ask him to reduce his intake to about 2,000 calories per day, for 1 pound of weight loss a week, or about 4.5-5 pounds by the end of 40 days. If Joe reduced his intake to 500 calories per day (a 1,500 calorie reduction), he’d be looking at loosing up to 3 pounds per week (he would also lose a TON of water weight for reasons we won’t detail here), making a weight loss of about 5 pounds a more accurate estimate per week. At the end of 40 days, Joe would have lost over 20 pounds.  Joe’s original 2,500 calories/day was a pretty low starting value; for someone consuming even more already per day (3,000, 3,5000), the deficit would be even higher, resulting in an even larger weight loss by the end of 40 days. The point? When you eat that little you lose weight, period. hCG is not changing that, enhancing that, or improving that. As one researcher put it, if this hormone actually had the effect on obese people it says it does, why would you also have to starve yourself (literally) for it to “work”?

Additionally, severe calorie restriction not only results in weight loss that is completely unmanageable to maintain, but often causes irregular heartbeat, electrolyte imbalance, and gallstone formation.  Add hCG into the mix and you’re looking at headaches, blood clots, cramps, and even pulmonary embolisms.  Those who do lose weight using an extreme restriction approach have been shown to gain at least some of the weight back after stopping the diet, and more often than not, gain back all the weight they lost plus more. Both the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Clinical nutrition have shown that the hCG diet is neither safe, nor effective, and all studies done in support of hCG for weight loss are of very poor quality and study design.

Bottom line? There is no “magic” diet for quick, life-long weight loss. It took years to gain the weight, why would you expect it to take mere days to take it all off? Severe calorie restriction is dangerous in and of itself, but hCG only complicates the matter and further damages your health, while putting a significant dent in your bank account (injections can cost thousands).  Leave hCG for growing babies and let us help you find your way to a healthy weight and lifestyle, no gimmicks, just sound nutrition, exercise, and support.

Aubrey Phelps MS RDN