The hCG diet combines the use of hormone supplements and calorie restriction to promote weight loss. However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest the diet is safe or works in the way that supporters claim it does.
Furthermore, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise that people avoid using hCG supplements for weight loss.
In this article, we discuss the hCG diet and weigh up the evidence for and against its use.
What is the hCG diet?
The hCG diet involves restricting calorie intake.
Human chorionic gonadotropin or hCG is a hormone that the female body produces during pregnancy to help the embryo and fetus develop. Doctors sometimes prescribe hCG injections for treating fertility issues in women and hormone problems, such as hypogonadism, in men.
The hCG diet first became popular in the 1950s. Its promoters claim that taking hCG can reduce feelings of hunger and support weight loss by redistributing body fat from the thighs, stomach, and hips.
According to the FDA, popular diet products containing hCG state that they reset the body’s metabolism and fix “abnormal eating habits.”
Manufacturers of these products also claim that the hCG diet promotes weight loss of up to a pound a day. However, there is no scientific evidence to back up these claims.
According to a commentary published in the International Journal of Obesity, no research has shown that the hCG hormone has any effects on weight loss. Furthermore, it may be unsafe for some people and in certain doses.
Is the hCG diet safe and effective?
Experts say that the hCG diet is neither safe nor effective. The FDA advise people to avoid any over-the-counter (OTC) products that say they contain hCG.
Although the FDA has approved hCG as a prescription medicine for treating fertility issues, they have not approved it as an aid for weight loss. Furthermore, the FDA have not approved hCG in any form for OTC sale.
The use of hCG can cause a range of potential side effects, including:
- mood changes
- fluid buildup in body tissues
- enlarged breasts in males
- blood clots
Another worrying aspect of the hCG diet is that its promoters often recommend people severely restrict their calorie intake to around 500 calories a day.
Although a very-low-calorie diet (VLCD) may promote weight loss, it puts people at risk of potentially serious side effects, including:
A 2015 review identified 12 studies that reported that weight loss was no greater in people on a VLCD who took hCG compared to those on a VLCD who took a placebo. The researchers concluded that hCG:
- is not effective in supporting weight loss
- does not redistribute fat
- does not alleviate hunger
What the hCG diet involves
People on the hCG diet can eat skinless chicken breasts.
People who follow the hCG diet typically limit their calorie intake to around 500 a day. They also take hCG shots, oral drops, or sprays. These diet products are available OTC and manufacturers market them as being “homeopathic.”
Most people on the diet eat two meals a day, namely, lunch and dinner. Each meal includes:
- a source of protein
- a vegetable
- a fruit
- a serving of bread, such as a single breadstick
Examples of food options include:
- a handful of berries
- skinless chicken breast
- half a grapefruit
- lean ground beef
- melba toast
- sliced turkey
- spinach and other leafy greens
- white fish
Those following the diet can drink unlimited amounts of water, tea, and coffee, and they may use sugar substitutes.
Foods to avoid on the hCG diet include:
- dried and pickled fish
- fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna
- potatoes and other starchy vegetables
There are several distinct phases to the hCG diet:
- Phase 1. During this stage, a person can eat as much as they wish, to build up calories and fats. They also take the hCG supplements. Phase 1 typically lasts for 2 days.
- Phase 2. This phase involves continuing with the supplements and restricting calorie intake to 500 a day. People can remain in this phase for 3 to 6 weeks.
- Phase 3. During this “maintenance phase,” people discontinue the supplements and gradually increase their food intake.
Are hCG products legal?
In the U.S., it is illegal to sell OTC products containing hCG. This restriction also includes homeopathic hCG products.
As a result of suppliers breaking this law, the FDA and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have issued seven warning letters to companies that market products, claiming to contain the hormone.
These companies are violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act.
The hCG hormone is legal when a doctor prescribes it in injection form. The FDA approves hCG for female infertility and male hormone treatments.
Sometimes, doctors may prescribe hCG for unapproved weight-loss purposes. There is no evidence to suggest this is effective, and it may cause several adverse reactions.
Benefits, risks, and side effects
Fatigue can be a side effect of using the hCG hormone.
There is no evidence to support taking hCG to promote weight loss, but using the hormone may cause side effects.
According to research, reported side effects of hCG include:
- buildup of fluid in body tissues, known medically as edema
- fatigue and lack of energy
- enlarged breasts in males, known as gynecomastia
- blood clots, known as thromboembolism
Taking hCG can also affect the result of pregnancy tests, which work by detecting hCG in a person’s urine.
Another potential risk can occur during a medical emergency if doctors are unaware of the person’s hCG diet.
If a doctor tests a female for pregnancy, the hCG may give a positive test result, but an ultrasound will reveal no fetus. Doctors may then assume it is an ectopic pregnancy, which is a surgical emergency.
Severe calorie restriction can also cause adverse effects, such as:
Those who experience side effects from following the hCG diet or using hCG supplements should see their doctor immediately.
Also, the FDA recommend that people should only undertake a VLCD under proper medical supervision.
The hCG diet combines the use of hormone supplements and severe calorie restriction to support weight loss. However, there is no research to support this diet being either safe or effective.
In the U.S., hCG is a prescription-only drug and companies that market hCG products for weight loss are breaking the law.
While people following the hCG diet may initially lose weight, this appears to be entirely due to the severe calorie restriction, rather than the effects of the hormone. Eating just 500 calories a day is neither healthy nor sustainable, and it can cause serious adverse effects.
People who wish to lose weight should speak to a doctor or dietician for advice and information. Usually, healthcare professionals recommend reducing calorie intake to 1,200 to 1,800 calories a day while increasing physical activity.
However, these measures may not be suitable for everyone, so it is essential that people speak to a professional before making significant dietary or lifestyle changes.