Like clockwork, every new year brings on a slew of ridiculous fad diets. Most of the time manufacturers are simply pedaling low-calorie eating plans dressed up in gimmicky packaging. While silly and potentially lacking in nutrition, usually they aren't downright dangerous.
But then there's the HCG diet.
Ever heard of it? Let's hope not, because the HCG diet is perhaps one of the worst weight-loss methods we've ever seen. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the products from being sold—yep, selling these products is illegal—calling them "unapproved ... and misbranded drugs that make unsubstantiated claims about weight loss."
Just what is HCG, and what makes it so scary?
HCG stands for human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone that's produced in the placenta and shows up in the urine of pregnant women. And while it does have some legitimate medical purposes (doctors can prescribe HCG drugs to treat some causes of infertility) weight loss is not one of them.
The hormone gained its reputation in 1954 when physician A. T. W. Simeons published findings in The Lancet suggesting injections of HCG as a link to initial and continued weight loss. His theory stemmed from other doctors using HCG to treat children suffering from Fröhlich's syndrome (a condition with symptoms that include obesity and slow development of reproductive organs). Since HCG was "advocated for the treatment of Fröhlich's syndrome," Simeons reported, why not inject obese individuals who did not have Fröhlich's with the hormone as means to lose weight? He did just that and found that while HCG alone "does not reduce weight, it does make a very drastic caloric curtailment [about 500 calories a day for a few weeks] possible." He was claiming that HCG was a powerful appetite suppressant, but what researchers found decades later should have been enough to squash these claims for good.
In 1977, a study in the Western Journal of Medicine found that people who were taking injections of HCG didn't lose any more weight than those taking a placebo, and that any weight loss was due to the super-restrictive 500-calorie-a-day diet. In fact, researchers went so far as to say that with all the evidence against the HCG diet, people who advocated for Simeons' therapy "could only be financially motivated."
A meta-review in a 1995 British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology backed up those findings, concluding that there was "no scientific evidence that HCG causes weight loss, a redistribution of fat, staves off hunger or induces a feeling of well-being."
"There are really no pros to taking HCG," says Carol Wolin-Riklin, R.D., from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "The more extreme the treatment, the more wary you should be."
The only explanation for weight loss on the HCG diet is from people restricting themselves to 500 calories a day, and much of that weight will come from water and lean muscle mass, she says. Sure, that'll trigger weight loss in the short term, but it could also set you up for nutrient deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, and heart arrhythmias.
Even after all that, if you still wanted to try HCG, you'd likely have to buy it in the form of a supplement. That's a problem. Supplements aren't regulated by the FDA in the same way as traditional medicine, so "you don't know what you're getting [in that bottle]," says Wolin-Riklin.
So to summarize, if the HCG diet is ineffective, illegal, and potentially dangerous, then what accounts for its sudden (and seasonal) popularity? "What you're buying is hope in a bottle," says Wolin-Riklin. Hope, and placenta hormones. We'll pass.