What is HCG, and How is It Used in Dieting?
HCG is human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone produced by women during pregnancy. It helps to feed the embryo and aid in the fetus’ healthy development.
The HCG hormone is often used as a marker of pregnancy in home pregnancy tests. It can be used medically in the treatment of various conditions, including fertility issues in women and certain hormonal problems in men.
HCG is not approved as an over-the-counter drug in most jurisdictions. It certainly isn’t in the US or EU. Supplement companies that sell over-the-counter weight-loss products that use HCG are entering into a very shady grey area of the law, if not often outright breaking it.
However, HCG has been touted as a weight loss aid since the 1950s.
The claim is that HCG supplementation can help with increasing feelings of satiation, suppressing hunger in users. It can also reset the body’s metabolic rate, according to some HCG products. HCG diet gurus also like to claim that HCG can help to spot target fat reduction from the stomach, thighs, and hips.
Manufacturers of HCG products have made the claim that the HCG diet itself can lead to weight loss in the region 1-2 pounds per day, made up almost entirely of fat. It can’t: this is impossible according to the most up to date scientific theories, and there has been no scientific evidence to support such claims. There has been no scientific data as yet to support the hypothesis that the HCG hormone can affect weight loss. Indeed, due to reasons that I’ll go into below, HCG can be unsafe for many people, and the HCG diet is unsafe for everybody. In fact, HCG use as a weight loss supplement is based on such a lack of scientific data that, in the US, HCG medications are required to bear a label from the FDA stating plainly that it is not effective or advisable for weight loss. Some will be labelled ‘homeopathic’ instead, in a bid to create a bit of a loophole, but authorities still suggest that these products are unsafe and not fit for purpose.
The Theory Behind the HCG Diet
So, what exactly does the HCG diet consist of, and, if it’s so unsafe, why does it persist?
To answer the second question first, the HCG diet persists in part because it promises such major, immediate results. As I mentioned above, those who recommend it often suggest that 1-2 pounds of body fat can be lost per day. Even with legions of fitness professionals telling the public that this figure is unrealistic, unsafe, unachievable and definitely best avoided, results like these are often too much of a siren song to ignore. Some people who have been fighting fat unsuccessfully for a long time find such quick fixes as the HCG diet offers too alluring to dismiss.
Looking at the diet itself, weight loss using HCG is meant to be achieved through a couple of different mechanisms.
First and foremost is the incredibly unhealthy caloric restriction that the HCG diet has its practitioners stick to. Adherents generally consume between 500-800 calories per day for a number of weeks (more on this below.) Given that an average adult needs roughly 3 times this amount (1800-2400 for most), this creates an incredible deficit. As a rule of thumb, you can expect your body to lose 1 pound in body fat per week for every 500 calories you maintain as a daily deficit.
With a daily deficit of up to around 1800, as the HCG diet recommends, you could theoretically expect to lose about 3-4 pounds per week if you are already a healthy weight.
For obese practitioners, 4-5000 calories per day as an average intake is not unheard of. This means that suddenly they will find themselves on a caloric deficit of more like 4-4500 calories. Obviously, this will theoretically lead to a weight loss of about 9 pounds per week. This is where the HCG diet gets its claim of 1-2 pounds per day from.
For reasons I will go into below, however, this doesn’t work in practice.
Dr Albert Simeons, a British doctor and nutritionist, first proposed HCG as a weight loss aid in the 1950s. He would have practitioners administer the hormone via injection (today, you will more usually find them as tablets, pellets and sprays.) The claim, as I outline above, is that HCG will allow dieters to forgo the feelings of hunger they would get on such a low diet as Simeons outlined, and that it will aid in improving metabolic rates. However, there has been no scientific data to justify Simeons’ thesis to date.
The Diet Itself
Most people who follow the HCG diet will bring their caloric intake down to as close to 500 calories per day as they can manage, split between a couple of evenly spaced meals. At the same time, they will ingest HCG in one of several of its available forms (pills, drops, sprays, injections…)
Unlimited amounts of water, tea and coffee can be drunk on the HCG diet, provided that calories from milk are accounted for and sugar substitutes are used.
The two meals eaten on the diet will generally be lunch and dinner, with breakfast being skipped in a bid to prolong the fasting window. These meals will consist of:
- A fruit and a vegetable
- A protein source such as eggs or meat
- A small portion of bread
Please see the base of this article for recommended sources of food for the HCG diet.
The diet itself is split into three phases. These are:
- First phase: This phase will last 2 days, during which time adherents can eat as much as they want whilst beginning their course of HCG supplements. Those proposing the diet claims that this enables them to build up a store of calories and fats (which runs counter to typical advice for weight loss dieting.)
- Second phase: This is the main phase and will last for anything from 3-6 weeks. During this phase, adherents take their supplements and restrict their caloric intake to as close to 500 calories per day as they can manage (note: 3-6 weeks is an incredibly dangerous amount of time to subsist on so little.)
- Third phase: This is the end of the diet and counts as a maintenance phase. HCG supplementation is stopped and adherents slowly bring their caloric intake up to a manageable, safe amount (usually the 1800-2400 window mentioned above.)
So, Will the HCG Diet Help You to Lose Weight?
The short answer is… perhaps it will. You will likely end up lighter, one way or another. But let me talk you through it in a little more detail.
Let’s start with some of the HCG diet’s claims and how they pertain to your own weight loss goals.
HCG Claims to Boost Your Metabolism
I mentioned above that proponents of the HCG diet claim that HCG boosts metabolism and contributes to heightened weight loss, meaning that your natural basal metabolic rate (BMR) won’t slow down under the influence of such a restrictive diet as they lay out.
Multiple studies have, however, debunked this. They compared the effects of HCG supplementation versus placebo supplementation and found weight loss to be the same across both groups. The weight loss that the HCG diet brings about is solely due to the low-calorie nature of its programming. Nor did the HCG hormone diminish feelings of hunger in participants.
If you want to boost your metabolism, try eating to a mild caloric deficit (removing just 3-500 calories from your daily intake) whilst exercising more. Go out walking, try swimming, join a gym and go to an aerobics class. Elevating your heart rate regularly, building muscle mass and keeping fit are the most easily achieved, safest, healthiest ways to naturally improve your BMR.
HCG Claims to Improve Body Composition
Does the HCG diet improve body composition? Will it improve your ratio of lean muscle mass to fat?
Well… no. No, it won’t.
Your body will go into starvation mode on the HCG diet. It will think that it is starving (because it effectively is) and so will immediately start trying to reduce its own energy demands.
I mentioned above that one of the first things your body does when placed on a calorie restricted diet is to begin to process its own muscle mass. Muscle is metabolically demanding: if your body doesn’t have enough energy to service itself, it will get rid of its most demanding systems first (muscle tissue, here.) It will then enter into a catabolic state in which it takes energy from your broken-down muscle tissue.
However, HCG diet proponents will make the claim that their product stops this from happening. The idea is that HCG diet only causes your body to lose fat, preserving your valuable lean muscle tissue throughout the process. It does so by elevating production of other hormones, increasing BMR and promoting an anabolic rather than catabolic state (in which you build muscle rather than breaking it down.)
This is false. There is no data to suggest that HCG can do these things. Moreover, even if it could do what its proponents suggest, there are other, more efficient, healthier and cheaper ways to achieve these results. Resistance training is the most obvious one: swimming, weight lifting, calisthenics, yoga… any of these will promote lean muscle retention when performed on a sensible caloric deficit. High protein diets are another suggestion for improving body composition in this way. Lower your calories by ditching unhelpful, simple carbs like sugar and bread, whilst stimulating muscle retention or growth by eating anabolic inspiring lean proteins like chicken breast, eggs and pulses.
This is how the pros commit to body recomposition. It is scientifically proven as a valid way in which to achieve your goals.
Potential Side Effects of the HCT Diet
I’ve alluded to these a couple of times so far, but it’s important that all the potential side effects of the HCT diet are clear to anybody considering embarking on such a fearsomely controversial nutrition regime.
Thorough research reports the following side effects of HCG use and the HCG diet:
- Fatigue and lethargy, often leading to depression
- Mood swings, including irritability and restlessness
- Edema- the build-up of body tissue fluids
- Gynecomastia- the enlargement of breast tissue in men due to low testosterone levels
- Thromboembolism- blood clots, which are potentially fatal
You can also screw up the results of pregnancy tests if you are taking HCG. This likely won’t be too much of an issue, as the likelihood of conceiving or, tragically, remaining pregnant in starvation mode are very slim.
However, you may get a false positive result due to the presence of HCG in your system. This can lead doctors to assuming that you are presenting an ectopic pregnancy, which will be a surgical emergency. You will be operated on as a matter of great urgency.
Entering starvation mode, as the HCG diet relies on you doing, may have the following side effects:
- Increased gallstone risk
- Micronutrient deficiencies- lacking much needed vitamins, minerals and electrolytes
- Atrophy- loss of muscle mass
- Heartbeat irregularities
There will also be a very much heightened risk of complications to various pre-existing conditions. These include, but are by no means limited to, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease and people prone to, or who are being treated for, thromboses.
If you are taking HCG or subsisting on a low-calorie diet like the HCG diet and you experience any of the above symptoms, contact your doctor or a healthcare provider immediately. Tell them that you’re on this diet and follow their advice.
My Take on the HCG Diet
The HCG diet has been around for a number of years now. Adherents and proponents love it for its extremity. Claims still persist in certain circles that the HCG diet can help you to lose 1-2 pounds per day through massive caloric deficits. They claim that it is safe and easy, and that you won’t feel as though you are on a calorie restricted diet.
This is rubbish, in my professional opinion. Any diet that claims to enable you to lose weight this quickly is either wrong, fraudulent, dangerous, or all three.
More than this, however, is the fact that the claims surrounding HCG as a supplement are entirely unfounded. If you still do want to put yourself through the HCG diet, skip the HCG part. I still wouldn’t recommend cutting calories to such a drastic state, but if you’re going to, at least don’t waste time, money and effort on taking HCG. You will get the same results without it.
For starters, your body won’t allow itself to lose this much fat. Fat is a precious resource, which is why it can be so hard to shift. Muscle is much more metabolically demanding and, in purely survival terms, far less useful than fat. Therefore, your body will enter a catabolic state: it will use up muscle for energy. It will preserve fat and chew through pounds and pounds of lean muscle tissue.
So, if you do end up losing 1-2 pounds per day, it will be by diminishing your lean muscle reserves. You’ll be as fat as ever, just with nothing else. This will in turn cause major skeletal issues further down the line.
There are other risks that severely limiting your caloric intake for as long as the HCG diet suggest can pose. These include the formation of gallstones, a dearth of vitamin and mineral uptake, electrolyte imbalances, heartbeat fluctuations and many more. It would be common for those as calorically deprived as the HCG suggests to report greatly increased incidences of fatigue, mood swings (including restlessness, depression and heightened irritability) edema, thromboembolism, and male gynecomastia as natural testosterone levels are supressed.
Such a restrictive diet (as mentioned above, you are looking at hundreds of calories per day where your body needs a couple of thousand) will likely throw your natural hormonal balance out of kilter. You need adequate fat supplies to maintain them, which will be sorely lacking on this kind of diet. You also need fat to maintain joint, skin and hair health, so you can expect these to go out the window. This kind of caloric intake will also slow your metabolism right down, so you will find yourself growing increasingly lethargic, unable to concentrate, and unable to exert any kind of athleticism.
What Should you Do?
Anybody who has been involved in any kind of fitness or dietary program at any point in their lives (I think this applies to most people) will know that there are successful, sensible ways to go about diet and weight loss, and then there are the other kind. The HCG diet is the other kind.
In the US, the FDA advises people to stay away from HCG weight-loss products. They lump them in with other, over the counter homeopathic remedies, which should tell you all you need to know about them. The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have issued several warnings to companies known to be selling HCG drops, pellets and sprays, both online and in-store. These warnings have generally centred around the fact that the homeopathic remedies are illegal, untested (in adequate conditions- the kind of word of mouth, anecdotal evidence homeopathic remedies thrive on doesn’t count) and are making unsubstantiated, unsupported claims.
There are much safer ways to achieve your health and fitness goals. If you want to lose weight, I would always suggest speaking with your doctor or other relevant healthcare professionals. They can help you to structure a sensible nutrition plan and guide you through the kinds of activity levels you should be hitting. After a while, you may want to consult with a personal trainer and/or a nutritionist: their advice will also be invaluable in achieving what you want to without risking your health or inviting failure.
Foods typically included in the HCG diet:
- a handful of berries
- skinless chicken breast
- half a grapefruit
- lean ground beef
- melba toast
- spinach and other leafy greens
- white fish
Foods typically avoided on the HCG diet include:
- dried and pickled fish
- fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna
- potatoes and other starchy vegetables