Q: I’m not overweight, but I’m not as lean as I know I can be. I’ve been training regularly and eating clean, but I’m having a hard time getting off that last 10 pounds. I’ve heard about something new called the HCG diet. A medical doctor even suggested that it might be something I should try. Have you heard of it? If so, what’s your advice?
A: To borrow a famous movie line, my advice would be “Run, Forrest, run!” Several people have asked me about the HCG diet recently. In fact, my girlfriend came home from a doctor visit with a pamphlet about it. Trust me, Diana is in good shape—but like you, she’s not as lean as she feels she should be given the effort she’s putting into nutrition and training.
Human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG, is a hormone produced during pregnancy and is found in the urine of pregnant women. One of its functions in the human body is to ensure that the growing fetus receives enough nutrients to grow and develop normally. The medicinal uses of HCG are 1) as an ovalulation stimulator in infertile women, and 2) as therapy to return testosterone to normal in men who have suppressed testosterone output after using anabolic steroids.
The HCG diet in a nutshell: You take the HCG injections—some centers use sublingual HCG, meaning it’s administered orally, under the tongue—and you eat only 500 calories per day. You have only one meal, consisting of steak, vegetables and an apple. You’re not supposed to exercise while on the diet. Once you reach your goal weight, you can introduce other foods back into your eating plan, but if you deviate more than two pounds over your goal weight, then you go back on the single 500-calorie meal per day until your weight goes back down.
When I read that, I had three questions. First, who couldn’t lose weight while on only 500 calories per day? Second, how could anyone possibly adhere to a 500-calorie-per-day diet indefinitely? Third, if you were able to limit yourself to 500 calories per day, why would you need the HCG injections to lose weight? It looked like a big steaming pile of horse puckey to me. So I did a little research.
Many years ago HCG was a drug male bodybuilders used to bring their natural testosterone back up after they finished a steroid cycle. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why a doctor would administer the drug to women in order for them to lose weight.
Not only that, the HCG diet is actually nothing new. In the 1950s Albert Simeons, a British physician, contended that HCG injections would enable dieters to subsist comfortably on a 500-calorie-a-day diet. While there was little or no reputable scientific evidence to support those claims, Simeons declared that HCG would mobilize stored fat, suppress appetite and redistribute fat from the waist, hips and thighs.
As you can imagine, with those claims Simeons’ weight-loss clinics thrived. At one time HCG was the most widespread obesity medication administered in the United States. Some doctors liked it because it assured them of a steady stream of repeat patients—for the once-a-week injections.
In 1976 the Federal Trade Commission ordered the Simeon Management Corporation, Simeons Weight Clinics Foundation, Bariatric Management Corporation, C.M. Norcal Inc. and HCG Weight Clinics Foundation and their officers to stop claiming that their HCG-based programs were safe, effective and/or approved by the Food and Drug Administration for weight control. Although the order didn’t stop the clinics from using HCG, it required that patients who contract for the treatment be informed in writing that:
“These weight-reduction treatments include the injection of HCG, a drug which 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 HGC 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.”
In 2009 the American Society of Bariatric Physicians issued a position statement:
“Numerous clinical trials have shown HCG to be ineffectual in producing weight loss. HCG injections can induce a slight increase in muscle mass in androgen-deficient males. The diet used in the Simeons method provides a lower protein intake than is advisable in view of current knowledge and practice. There are few medical literature reports favorable to the Simeons method; the overwhelming majority of medical reports are critical of it. Physicians employing either the HCG or the diet recommended by Simeons may expose themselves to criticism from other physicians, from insurers, or from government bodies.”
HCG is being marketed in sublingual form. As far as I can tell, no scientific studies of sublingual HCG have been published, but I think it would be safe to assume that it’s no more effective than the injected HCG.
Aside from the fact that it doesn’t make sense and numerous double-blind studies have failed to prove the effectiveness of HCG as a weight-loss drug, the most damning evidence against it is its promotion by marketer Kevin Trudeau. Trudeau bills himself as a consumer advocate, yet he’s been convicted of fraud and lost a civil suit filed by the Federal Trade Commission that banned him from infomercials and ordered him to pay more than $37 million. If Trudeau is selling it, I ain’t buyin’ it!
I was just about finished writing this column when I met with a new client. Michele has been training for many years but like you and Diana has struggled to get off those last eight to 10 pounds, even though she eats very clean. She said she doesn’t usually subscribe to fad diets but decided to give the HCG diet a try last December. She lost 10 pounds in three weeks, but I would suspect that a large portion of it was water and/or lean tissue, as they advised her not to exercise during the diet. When she gained the weight back and tried the HCG diet again—she wouldn’t give up the weight training—she was unable to lose weight. To me it’s not surprising that a 500-calorie-per-day diet would bring her metabolism to a screeching halt. Immediately after meeting with Michele, I met Diana to do some cardio. She had just returned from a follow-up visit with her doctor. Armed with information about the HCG diet, she questioned him about it. The doctor basically regurgitated the teachings of Dr. Simeons. In Diana’s estimation he firmly believes that all of Simeons’ claims are true.
My advice to you, Diana, Michele and others who have inquired about the HCG diet is to avoid it and any diets that promise weight loss in excess of two pounds per week and that require ridiculously restrictive eating plans and questionable drugs. Take bodyfat off the old-fashioned way: a combination of weight training, cardiovascular exercise and a balanced diet that has you eating fewer calories than you burn. Shoot for losing one to two pounds per week—preferably one pound. Commitment and consistency in both training and diet are the keys.
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