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Nutrition Q&A: Does the HCG Diet Work?

It depends on what you mean. On this hormone-based plan, fat may vanish—but the risks are very real. Our MF expert spells them out for you.

Q: “I heard that the HCG diet can help you lean out—fast. Are there any drawbacks?”

A: Ah, yes. You’ve heard the claims. But do you know the origins? HCG is for those so hell-bent on slimming down at lightening speed (a pound a day plus, compared to a healthy rate of two pounds per week), that they inject a pregnancy hormone—or take it under-tongue.

“Science to support recommending this diet is lacking,” says Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. “Weight loss results from its extremely restrictive nature and low caloric intake.” Period. Exclamation point.

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What’s hCG? It’s human chorionic gonadotropin, the hormone in urine that determines pregnancy test outcomes and that also spurs genital development. Its link to weight loss dates to the 1930s, when endocrinologist A.T.W Simeons discovered that young boys with pituitary-gland malfunctions taking hCG to aid gonad development lost weight by eating little without experiencing hunger pangs. He later combined the drug with calorie-cutting to develop the diet, and today's offshoots involve 26-day prescription-based treatments that cost around $450.

At 40 days, immunity can occur, so dieters must take a six-week break. And after dose three, dieters restrict daily calories to 800. No dairy, sugar, or alcohol are allowed. Plus you're encouraged to eat only high-protein foods low in starches and carbs. Yep, sounds like a real joy ride to us, too.

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But even worse—and more problematic—are the very real risks. The FDA has approved hCG only as a fertility drug treatment, and it recently issued warnings to seven companies marketing over-the-counter hCG products labeled “homeopathic” for weight loss. Among possible hCG side effects? Breast enlargement (yes, we’re talking man boobs), irritability, headache, depression, water weight, hair thinning, nausea, and diarrhea.

What's more, such caloric restriction could be considered starvation. Needs vary according to how active you are, but men generally require 2,000 to 3,000 calories daily to stay healthy. When attempting weight-loss, dieters may chop to 1,200 to 1,500 calories daily, but dipping below 1,200 isn't advised by experts. On such few calories, you can’t get all the nutrients your body needs—and you can forget about the energy and muscle fuel to work out.

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One British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology meta-analysis concluded “there is no scientific evidence that HCG is effective in the treatment of obesity; it does not bring about weight-loss of fat-redistribution, nor does it reduce hunger or induce a feeling of well-being.”

Malnourished Slim Jims? Not so sexy. Trust us, you're better with another slim-down, get-lean strategy.

MF EXPERT: Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, CSSD is a Sports Dietician and an experienced Food Scientist with over 15 years of experience, as well as a spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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