Is the hCG Diet Effective—and Safe?

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Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) is a hormone that's normally produced by women during pregnancy. Because it is purported to have fat-burning qualities, it is also the foundation of the so-called "hCG diet," which proponents claim can result in dramatic weight loss. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, considers hCG products for weight loss ineffective, unsafe, and illegal. Any weight loss that one may experience when on the hCG diet is owed to severe caloric restriction, which itself poses serious concerns.

What Is hCG?

hCG is produced by the placenta early in pregnancy and excreted in the urine, making it responsible for a positive result on a home pregnancy test. Its main function is to make the uterus hospitable for a growing fetus.

But hCG can also increase metabolism and mobilize the burning of fat to ensure that energy is provided to the developing fetus, as well as to protect the pregnancy even if the mother is facing a situation of starvation or is only able to get limited calories. It is this function that has sparked interest in the hormone's use for weight loss purposes.

hCG is also used at high doses to treat infertility.

The Theory Behind hCG for Weight Loss

Generally, the hCG protocol is straightforward. You follow a 20- or 40-day cycle of using hCG supplementation, along with a very low-calorie diet composed of very specific foods (lean protein, vegetables, bread, and fruit) and lots of water; butter, oils, and sugar are to be avoided.

The combination of hCG with a very low-calorie diet is sometimes referred to as the hCG Protocol, the hCG Diet, or the Simeons diet, after British physician Dr. A.T.W. Simeons, the doctor who first proposed it as a weight loss method in 1954.

Proponents claim that this stimulates the hypothalamus and triggers the burn-off of stored fat without the normal side effects of a low-calorie diet, such as hunger or headaches.

This, however, is entirely rooted in conjecture.

Is the hCG Protocol Effective?

Simply put, no. The hCG diet, which has been around since the 1950s, has been tested in several randomized clinical trials. The results of these trials have clearly demonstrated that hCG administration added to a very low-calorie diet does not improve weight loss when compared to the very low-calorie diet alone. So, the use of hCG does not improve weight loss at all.

Despite the hype, there is no evidence from clinical science that the hCG diet works.

It's also important to note that while hCG is prescribed for and has approval from the FDA as a fertility treatment, its use as a weight-loss treatment is considered "off-label."

The FDA requires physicians to advise patients that hCG has not been demonstrated to be an effective treatment for weight loss. Since 1975, the FDA has required labeling and advertising of HCG to state:

"HCG has not been demonstrated to be effective adjunctive therapy in the treatment of obesity. There is no substantial evidence that it increases weight loss beyond that resulting from caloric restriction, that it causes a more attractive or “normal” distribution of fat, or that it decreases the hunger and discomfort associated with calorie-restricted diets."

Is hCG Safe?

High-dose hCG for fertility treatments can result in ovarian hyperstimulation and rupture of ovarian cysts, among other problems. The doses used for fertility treatment, typically 5,000 to 10,000 IU are, however, much higher than the 125 IU a day typically used in the hCG protocol.

Furthermore, health food stores and online retailers sell homeopathic products that claim to contain hCG, but in fact do not. These products are not regulated and there is no proof they are safe. In fact, the FDA has deemed it illegal to sell these products.

Real HCG is administered as a fertility drug in the form of injections and is available only through a doctor's prescription. Homeopathic products sold online do not contain HCG and therefore cannot raise blood levels of the hormone.

The FDA has received reports of serious adverse events associated with the use of hCG injections for weight loss including pulmonary embolism, depression, cerebrovascular issues, cardiac arrest, and death. 

Still, there are practitioners who are comfortable prescribing hCG injections for weight loss. They have different safety guidelines that they themselves follow, but in general, hCG administration is especially risky in people with any of the following conditions or circumstances:

  • Pregnancy
  • Breastfeeding
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer or a history of cancer
  • Gout or a history of gout
  • History of epilepsy
  • History of kidney disease

A Word From Verywell

The hCG diet is a fad diet whose claims have been disproven in randomized clinical trials. Both the administration of hCG and the use of ultra-low-calorie diets have been associated with substantial medical risk. Furthermore, the FDA has issued strong statements to the effect that the diet is unsafe, and that homeopathic hCG products are illegal.

This is not a diet that should be used by anyone. If you are trying to lose weight and having difficulty, speak with your doctor and/or a nutritionist for guidance.

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