Is there no limit to what people will do to avoid proper diet and exercise? A diet whose roots date back to the early 1950s and that has seen a recent resurgence, uses the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) — also known as the pregnancy hormone — to suppress appetite.
The diet was originally developed by British endocrinologist Dr. A.T.W. Simeons who was using hCG to treat low testosterone levels in boys. During treatment, he noticed that the boys were losing weight, and especially belly fat, which led him to conclude that the hypothalamus gland (which is responsible for the production of hormones) contributed to the regulation of fat.
Over the course of a decade, Simeons experimented with different foods and amounts of the hormone to fine-tune the hCG diet, which when followed precisely, led to men and women losing weight much faster than through diet and exercise alone.
But doctors today point out that there’s one key factor driving this weight loss: the diet only allows for a consumption of 500 daily calories.
“The essence of the diet is that you’re only eating 500 calories a day,” said Dr. Tom Hannam, director of Hannam Fertility Centre. “It’s wildly insufficient.”
Hannam explains that hCG is made by the placenta when a woman gets pregnant. Its purpose is to stimulate the ovaries to get them to keep making progesterone, which thickens the endometrial lining so that she can hold on to her pregnancy. By the time she makes it to eight weeks of gestation, the placenta makes its own progesterone and hCG is no longer needed. Coincidentally, the diet only lasts eight weeks.
Looking at the time frame, then, it’s obvious that hCG is crucial in the beginning stages of a pregnancy, which is the same time that many women experience nausea and vomiting.
“This characteristic of pregnancy that’s largely driven by this hormone — nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite — is what health practitioners are trying to capture so that their patients will lose interest in food,” he said. “The dose will vary so as not to induce full-blown [symptoms], but that changes from day to day.”
The other point of hCG could be to offer muscle protection, much in the way that any anabolic hormone might, he says. Due to the severe restrictions of the diet (patients eat two daily meals consisting of a lean protein, a vegetable, a piece of fruit and a bread product, like one breadstick or slice of Melba toast), the first thing people are bound to lose is muscle mass.
“That may be okay when you look at yourself or see the number on the scale, but it’s bad for the body,” Qaadri said. “You’re basically eating yourself. And depending on how fast you drop the weight, it can lead to other metabolic issues.”
But not all doctors see the point of the hCG. Dr. Jason Fung, a nephrologist and author of The Obesity Code, says that the hormone is little more than a placebo.
“There’s no evidence that it does anything aside from offer a placebo effect,” he said. “If you give people a shot of salt water and tell them it will suppress their hunger, in a high percentage of those people, it actually will. By that rationale, you can inject anything in them [and tell them it will aid in weight loss], and it will.”
In a study published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements, researchers asserted that even after more than half a century of studies, no scientific body has concluded that hCG has any effect on weight loss. This particular study looked at some preparations of the drug and found some alarming correlations.
“The study we performed was to look at the components of some pharmaceutical grade preparations which are often not pure hCG,” said Dr. Stephen Butler, lead author of the study. “From our extensive earlier work we know that some of these impurities are associated with aggressive cancer.”
Butler concludes: “From the global peer-reviewed published literature, there is no evidence to suggest how hCG could promote any kind of weight loss.”
Qaadri stresses that only a doctor can prescribe hCG and it comes in the form of an injectable. Any homeopathic preparations of it are fraudulent.
The other thing to consider about hCG, Hannam points out, is that in the right dosage, it can elicit a really good feeling in the body. After all, there are women who love being pregnant.
“The point of hCG is to create a response in the ovaries to make hormones, and most of us feel great when we get a hormone boost. Your energy and your libido go up, and you feel pretty awesome. In this case, it would probably improve your mood and take your mind off your hunger [from following such a restrictive diet.]”
In an interview with CTV News, a spokesperson from Health Canada explained the agency’s stance on using hCG for weight loss.
“When used to treat a condition for which it is not indicated, such as weight loss, [hCG] could cause serious side-effects. In women this could include painful cysts occurring as the result of over-stimulation of the ovaries.”
Hannam says that hCG isn’t routinely used to stimulate egg growth in the ovaries, so hyperstimulation wouldn’t be a common side effect. But there is one that could make it an undesirable option for women: an increased risk of pregnancy.
“This hormone stimulates the ovaries, and the thing with doing that is that you could increase your number of eggs and risk getting pregnant,” Hannam said.
While there are no definitive studies on what long-term hCG use will do to the body, he says the diet overall isn’t built for health.
“It’s an extreme diet,” he said. “Only eating 500 calories a day and taking a steroid that is untested for this indication is an extreme choice on top of another extreme choice. It’s not sustainable and therefore not medically advisable.”