It's almost predictable. Each time I give a talk about the biochemistry of hCG and clinical uses of hCG tests, I get asked a question about the hCG diet. A comment on a recent post on this blog also asked about its safety and effectiveness. I decided that even though the topic is slightly outside of the realm of The Pregnancy Lab, it should be addressed here.
First some history. In 1954, Dr. Albert T. W. Simeons, a British physician, first proposed the use of low-dose hCG injections (125 IU/day) combined with a very reduced calorie diet (500 calories/day) as a way to promote extreme weight loss. He described his method in a manuscript titled "Pounds & Inches: A New Approach to Obesity." He believed that during pregnancy hCG promotes the mobilization and consumption of excessive fat deposits for the benefit of the developing fetus.
Several clinical studies that examined the effectiveness of the hCG diet have been performed over the years. Tthe majority of these have clearly shown that there is no merit or truth to the claims that the hCG diet works. While many individuals in these studies have, indeed, lost weight, there was no difference in weight loss between those who used hCG and those who used a placebo. A meta-analysis published in 1995 concluded that the hCG diet "does not bring about weight loss or fat redistribution, nor does it reduce hunger or induce a feeling of well-being."
Many people who have tried the hCG diet will swear by it and I have no doubt that many of them have actually lost weight. However, the weight loss is due to the ultra-low calorie diet and not to the use of hCG. The FDA was warned consumers that hCG weight-loss products are fraudulent.
Notably, many hCG products are labeled as being "homeopathic." Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine in which practitioners treat patients using highly diluted medicines. As such, these types of hCG preparations contain undectable quantities of the hormone. The use of this type of preparation is the equivalent to using nothing at all. Note the "100% Hormone-Free" labeling of the hCG drops in the image above and recall that hCG is, itself, a hormone.
Perhaps most importantly, the safety of the hCG diet has recently been called into question. Daily injections of 200 IU of hCG can be used to extend the egg maturation phase of the female menstrual cycle suggesting that the actual use of hCG for weight loss could have reproductive effects. Prostate cells express receptors for hCG raising the concern, in men, that hCG use could lead to an enlarged prostate gland and even prostate cancer.
The lack of demonstrable weight loss effects and the possible safety concerns should be enough to make most people think twice before trying the hCG diet. With any luck, the fad will fade away again soon. This time, let's hope it is for good.