Starvation Plus Pregnancy Hormones

The hCG controversy

Jenna Bergen

Losing a pound a day may sound like a tempting proposition, but when it requires injecting pregnancy hormones and sustaining yourself on no more than 500 calories a day, one would think most women would turn a deaf ear. However, that hasn’t been the case with the hCG diet, which follows the above regimen. Popular in the 1970s, the diet is once again becoming the trendy way to shed pounds quickly.

And, according to many promoters, it works. Some women — including local hCG dieters — have reported losing more than 20 pounds in a month. Those in favor of the diet say it works like this: During pregnancy, calories are re-routed from the mother to the fetus. By injecting hCG, a hormone that is produced by the embryo and placenta during pregnancy, you basically trick your body into believing there’s a baby on the way. Thus, you burn more fat stores, your appetite drops off and dieters can subsist on “the energy equivalent of a turkey sandwich.”

Five hundred calories is far below the 1,200-calories-per-day mark for women and the 1,500-calories-per-day mark for men that most dietitians recommend as the least amount of energy one should consume in a day. Go lower, and you risk slowing down your metabolism—the very thing dieters should be aiming to increase.

However, Dr. Scott Greenberg, co-director of the hCG diet program at the Magaziner Center for Wellness in Cherry Hill, disagrees. “If I were just to put someone on 500 calories a day without hCG, the body would shut down and go into starvation mode. But hCG makes the body release stored calories to feed the fetus, so the body is not starving because it’s drawing another 2,000 calories per day out its fat stores.”

Of course, many doctors, as well as the F.D.A., are waving red flags. According to an article in the New York Times: “the F.D.A. has also reiterated a warning, first issued in the mid-1970s, that is required on hCG packaging: It has not been shown to increase weight loss, to cause a more ‘attractive’ distribution of fat or to ‘decrease hunger and discomfort” from low-calorie diets.’ Christopher Kelly, a spokesman for the agency, was also quoted as saying, “the hormone carried risks of blood clots, depression, headaches and breast tenderness or enlargement.”

Greenberg, who estimates that he’s put close to 3,000 dieters through the program over the past few years, says his patients have only seen positive effects, including a reduction in fatigue and fibromyalgia symptoms. He did note, however, that if you eat more than 500 calories per day, you won’t see the same results.

Which, of course, raises the question: Are dieters really losing weight because of the intense calorie restriction—which also eliminates processed carbs—or because of hCG?

As the New York Times article noted: “A study in The British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology tried to resolve the question of whether the hCG diet really worked by analyzing 14 randomized clinical trials of the diet. Only two, including one co-written by an advocate of the diet, found that people on hCG lost more weight, felt less hunger and had an improved body shape, compared with people on the same 500-calorie diet who received a placebo, like saline injections. But several studies concluded that the ritual of the daily injection and the instant gratification of quick weight loss helped motivate people to stay on the diet.”

My take: Until more research is done that proves hCG’s effectiveness, losing weight by basing your meals around non-starchy vegetables and lean proteins, as well as reducing carbohydrates and processed foods, is a cheaper (Greenberg estimates the cost of a one-month session at around $750), safer, and more feasible way to maintain weight loss longterm—and it doesn’t require any painful injections.