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The HCG Diet Is Ineffective and Unsafe

The U.S. FDA prohibits HCG use without a prescription — and the hormone isn’t approved for weight loss at all

Healthcare provider talking with patient with overweight in office

Sometimes, you want to lose weight fast, like when you’re trying to drop 30 pounds before that fitting. And sometimes, you need to lose weight fast, like following a diagnosis of obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

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Whatever the reason, sometimes slow, sustainable weight loss isn’t what you’re looking for. Healthcare professionals consider anything beyond two pounds a week to be extreme weight loss. But you’re in a hurry. You’re more interested in losing one to two pounds a day.

Enter the HCG diet, a diet that’s been promising dizzyingly fast weight loss for over half a century. This weight-loss scheme isn’t just too good to be true: It’s bad. But that doesn’t make the promise of instant gratification any less alluring.

Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, explains why the HCG diet is so dangerous — and what to do if it’s calling your name anyway.

What is the HCG diet?

In order to understand what the HCG diet is, we first have to discuss HCG, also known as human chorionic gonadotropin.

HCG is a hormone we all have (in small amounts) in our bodies, regardless of biological sex. But it’s produced in large quantities by the placenta during pregnancy. It thickens the uterus lining and tells the body to stop menstruation. Levels rise after conception and continue to rise for about 10 weeks thereafter. If that sounds familiar to you, it may be because HCG is the hormone you’re testing for when you take a pregnancy test.

There are legitimate medical uses for synthetic HCG, mostly to do with fertility issues and correcting specific hormonal imbalances. But dieting isn’t one of them.

And yet, the HCG diet is a thing. So, what exactly is it?

The HCG diet, put simply, has two parts: Taking an HCG hormone supplement of some sort while also restricting your food intake to 500 calories a day.

Zumpano explains the theory behind the HCG diet.

“The claim is that HCG supports rapid weight loss by targeting cravings, encouraging fat burning and protecting against muscle loss resulting from a metabolic slowdown,” she says. In other words, you’re effectively starving yourself and taking supplemental hormones in an attempt to counteract the negative side effects of extreme calorie restriction.

The HCG diet definitely sounds a bit odd. But does it work?

No.

But at least it’s healthy, right?

Also no.

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Let’s be 100% clear: There is NO safe or legitimate way to follow the HCG diet. That’s because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved HCG for weight loss purposes. In fact, they’ve issued warnings about the dangers of this approach to weight loss. In order to try the HCG diet then, you have to either misuse a prescription medication or purchase unregulated weight-loss products that claim to have HCG in them.

The HCG diet isn’t effective long term

No doubt about it — if you make your way on to certain corners of the internet, you’ll see testimonials about the HCG diet bringing instant weight loss. But what you won’t find is any evidence whatsoever that HCG is what did it.

Remember, the HCG diet isn’t just injecting or ingesting hormones. You’re also only allowed to eat between 500 and 800 calories a day — which isn’t nearly enough.

If you’re restricting your food intake to a dangerous degree, you’re going to lose weight, with or without HCG in the equation. The FDA (and half a century’s worth of research on the topic) is unequivocal: “Any loss is from severe calorie restriction. Not from the HCG.”

“Any diet that restricts your calories to 500 a day is going to work, to an extent,” Zumpano concedes. “But the additional weight loss benefits HCG supposedly confers haven’t been clinically proven and the FDA hasn’t approved the use of HCG for that purpose.”

While eating only 500 calories a day will result in weight loss, it’ll also put you at risk for a wide array of medical problems, including:

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As the FDA made clear in its warnings about the HCG diet, this level of food restriction can be fatal. So, if you’re distressed enough about your weight that you’re considering a 500-calorie diet, it’s best to see a healthcare provider.

If rapid weight loss is medically necessary — which it sometimes is, depending on a person’s health situation — you’ll need professional supervision to guard against dangerous side effects. If rapid weight loss isn’t a medical necessity, the desire to restrict your food intake to that degree could be a sign you’re developing a disordered relationship with food. Either way, you’ll benefit from the insight and support of qualified professionals.

The HCG diet isn’t safe

Setting aside the fact that HCG isn’t approved for use without a prescription — and isn’t approved for weight loss of any kind — there are two major reasons to avoid this trend:

  1. Manipulating your hormones can do serious (and potentially long-lasting) harm.
  2. Extreme calorie restriction is a dangerous and disordered dieting technique.

Let’s dive into these two concerns in more detail.

How HCG impacts your body

HCG is a legitimate medication when prescribed to treat certain hormonal imbalances. But it’s never appropriate to take it for weight loss. Here’s why.

We’ve all experienced natural hormone fluctuations at some point in our lives. Chances are, they probably weren’t your favorite moments. Few people look back fondly on puberty and menopause, for example. And for at least some people, pregnancy can get pretty hairy (both literally and figuratively.)

In other words, the HCG diet is all about manipulating your hormones. While some medical conditions call for hormone supplementation, just taking hormones without medical supervision isn’t just a bad idea: It’s dangerous. Side effects from HCG supplementation include:

  • Allergic reactions. If you’re allergic to an ingredient in HCG, you could experience a wide range of allergic reactions, including rashes, itching, hives, breathing problems, dizziness and swelling of the face, lips or tongue.
  • Skin and hair changes. People who inject HCG sometimes experience pain or irritation at the injection site. The sudden influx of new hormones can also cause acne and facial hair growth, along with other signs of puberty like voice changes.
  • Changes in your mental health. Hormone changes can mess with your emotions and moods causing issues like irritability, fatigue, restlessness and depression.
  • Reproductive concerns. People of all sexes and genders can experience painful swelling and enlargement of breasts and genitals while taking HCG. Women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) may also experience pelvic pain or vaginal bleeding.
  • Gastrointestinal issues. People taking HCG may experience nausea, vomiting, bloating or indigestion.
  • Urinary tract issues. You may find that you pee less, meaning that you’re passing less urine and peeing less often. That can potentially lead to urinary tract infections (UTIs) and other complications.
  • Other body changes. How’s this for odd: You may notice a sudden increase in height while taking HCG. But you may also notice a sudden increase in your weight. That’s right, the medication that’s supposedly going to help you shed pounds fast could actually be interfering with weight loss. It could be the result of fluid buildup (edema), which is a common side effect that’s particularly noticeable in the legs, hands and feet.

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In rare cases, people taking HCG have developed a condition called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), which is usually a complication only seen during IVF treatment. While OHSS is usually mild, it can be life-threatening in certain situations. HCG supplementation also raises your risk of developing or throwing a blood clot (venous thromboembolism) — another potentially deadly side effect.

That’s a LONG list of complications to risk for the sake of weight loss — especially when the weight loss plan is ineffective! And guess what? There’s more.

“Some studies have linked the use of HCG for weight loss to an increased risk for certain cancers,” Zumpano notes. The theory is that HCG encourages the growth of androgen cells, which could result in the growth of certain types of cancers.

Side effects of extreme calorie restriction

Setting aside for a moment that limiting your daily caloric intake to 500 calories every day is a disordered eating pattern, let’s walk through some of the physical effects a starvation-level diet can have on your body.

“Extreme low-calorie diets are risky,” Zumpano stresses. “They can cause minor side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, constipation and fatigue. And over time, you can experience electrolyte imbalances, irregular heartbeat, nutritional deficiencies and more.”

There’s another pesky side effect Zumpano says you can expect to see with that amount of food deprivation: hunger! Our bodies are designed to protect us from starvation. When we restrict our calories to an unhealthy level, it’s going to do everything in its power to hold onto its fat stores. And when your caloric intake goes up, your weight will, too. And quickly.

“The HCG diet may produce weight loss in the short term. But in the long term, you know extreme weight loss doesn’t work,” Zumpano reiterates. “You regain the weight — and you might even add to it.”

Some people mistakenly believe that weight loss is just a question of “calories in, calories out.” But that’s not how experts are talking about weight loss — at least, not anymore.

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“I’m moving away from calories per se when I make diet recommendations,” Zumpano clarifies. “It may be part of the picture, but I'm really focused on the quality of the food and the macronutrients. Calories can be a helpful guide, but don’t use them to restrict eating.”

All that to say, the HCG diet isn’t just dangerous and ineffective, it’s based on a hyper-simplified understanding of weight loss. Extreme calorie restriction won’t get you anywhere you want to be.

Alternatives

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve tried conventional weight loss methods before — possibly without success. It may be disappointing to read that the HCG diet is unsafe and ineffective. But Zumpano’s here to remind you that there are safe, healthy weight loss options out there.

“I would advise that anyone who’s considering the HCG diet see a registered dietitian instead,” she recommends. “They can help you find a plan that could work for you.”

Zumpano also recommends speaking with your healthcare provider about your weight loss goals. There are several options that are safe and can produce positive results, from specialized (and dietitian-supervised) eating plans like the protein-sparing modified fast (PSMF) to medical interventions.

“HCG isn’t approved for weight loss, but there are phenomenal weight loss medications that have been studied and are available by prescription,” Zumpano explains. “Your doctor can prescribe them if it’s medically appropriate and something you want to try. That's a better route to take than a dangerous short-term fix.”

Quick fixes don’t fix anything

It’s so appealing, the idea of a ready-made solution to a stubborn problem. Especially when you’re grappling with something as personal — and challenging — as weight loss. And let’s be honest, “grappling” may be putting it mildly.

It’s easy to buy into the hype around fad diets and weight loss merchandise like HCG supplements when you’re at your wit’s end. But it’s important to resist the allure of diets and products that promise rapid weight loss.

“Research shows that extreme weight loss leads to poor mental and physical health outcomes,” Zumpano emphasizes, “not to mention that you’re more likely to gain the weight back — and potentially gain even more. These plans aren’t healthy or sustainable.”

You’re more than a number on a scale and so is your weight. A one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss can’t (and shouldn’t) serve you as well as a plan tailored to your health needs and goals. So, instead of experimenting with dangerous and ineffective hormone supplements, work with a healthcare provider to figure out a safe and sustainable path to healthy weight loss. You — and your body — deserve real solutions.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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Human Chorionic Gonadotropin

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