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HCG Diets....Effective or Dangerous?


     As of recent I’ve been overwhelmed with questions about how effective the HCG diets actually are. I try to convince my clients to steer clear of these diets at all costs for their extreme measures and potentially life threatening consequences.  I’m going to try my best to explain my reasoning as to why they should be avoided without too much technical jargon.

     The HCG diet, also known as the OMNI diet, is nothing more than a chronic starvation diet. It requires you to restrict your daily caloric intake to the point in which your body sinks into a starvation mode, you then inject yourself with HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin – a hormone found in the urine of a pregnant female) or supplement yourself with HCG drops and you lose weight. Simple right? Well I didn’t specify what type of weight you are losing. Just because the numbers on the scale are going down and you are losing inches doesn’t mean you are getting where you want to be. Does this sound crazy? Well take a second to think outside the box.

     The healthy way to lose weight is simply to expend more energy than you are consuming while still meeting daily caloric intake values to maintain your lean mass. You want to do all that while dropping as much weight in the form of body fat as possible. Think of your lean muscle mass as your body’s form of a definable metabolism. The higher your lean mass ratio is in comparison to your body fat percentage, the more calories you will burn throughout the day. Your metabolism can be thought of as your body’s own personal furnace. The bigger your furnace is the more able you are to burn calories throughout the day, thus allowing you to keep off unwanted body fat.

     Let’s take a quick second to define a ‘calorie.’ A calorie is defined as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. A calorie is nothing more than a unit of measurement, the same way an inch is an inch and a pound is a pound. No matter how you look at it, it’s simply a unit of measurement. It takes 3500 calories to make up 1 pound of body fat. It takes 600 calories to make up one pound of muscle. Technically speaking, it takes 2000 to 2500 calories to GAIN a pound of muscle, but after the body catabolizes some of the muscle for synthesis, partitioning, micro-trauma, etc, you are left with roughly 600 calories. There are many other factors that will decide this but for now, let’s just focus on the 600 calories that are left over which made up that 1 pound of lean muscle.  

     Let’s use a quick example. Jane’s basil metabolic rate (energy burned at REST throughout the day through various functions such as homeostasis, breathing, temperature control, etc) was calculated at 1300 calories a day and her total daily energy expenditure came out to a maintenance level of 2000 calories a day. Basically this means if Jane exercises the way she does normally and eats 2000 calories, she will neither lose weight nor gain weight.  A healthy suggestion for her to lose weight in the form of fat and retain as much lean mass as possible, one might suggest she cuts her calories down by 500 a day and consume a diet consisting of high protein to help preserve lean mass. 500 calories multiplied by 7 days a week equals a 3500 calorie deficit or enough to theoretically lose 1 pound of fat a week. This is ideal for preserving as much lean mass as possible while burning unwanted body fat. While you cannot choose what your body loses in terms of lean mass or fat, you can help to create a favorable environment to preserve muscle mass and burn unwanted fat at the same time.

     Now let’s take Jane and throw her into the HCG diet. She would be limited to a diet of 500 calories a day. That’s right, she would only be able to eat 500 calories throughout the entire day. We already established above that her BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) is 1300 calories a day. Don’t forget this is what her body would burn in a day if she was in a coma and couldn’t move.  This extremely low caloric intake puts her body into ‘starvation mode’ which causes the body to panic.  Of course, being 1500 calories under her maintenance level of 2000 calories will cause her to lose weight but she will be losing more LEAN mass than FAT. We already established above that her lean mass is in fact her metabolism, so she is essentially shutting down her own metabolism.

     Let’s say for example she loses 10 pounds in a week. If we add up her maintenance calories for the week we get 14,000 calories a week (2000 calories multiplied by 7 days). If we add up her HCG diet calories for the week we get 3,500 calories a week (500 calories multiplied by 7 days). That’s a 10,500 calorie a week deficit in comparison to her maintenance level. If we divide that by what we know a pound of fat consists of (3500 calories) we get 3. That’s a maximum of 3 pounds she could lose in the form of fat but we already established she lost 10 pounds in that first week. So where did the rest of the ‘weight loss’ come from? The answer is unfortunately lean muscle. This is not good nor is it healthy. Keep in mind this is a very over simplified version of this. There are a ton of other factors that will determine how people lose weight but this is just a minor illustration to show how your body works.

     Now this is where the HCG drops come in. The HCG diet requires intramuscular injections of HCG or serum drops placed under the tongue. These are supposed to help you preserve your lean muscle mass while dropping unwanted body fat on such an extreme low calorie diet. Search any major clinical research site, you will find that no proof of this has ever been shown in clinical studies. In fact it is quite the opposite.  In 1995, the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology published an analysis of research showing no benefit of HCG in promoting weight loss. Another study done in a December 2009 position paper of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians concluded they did not recommend HCG as a weight loss aid because it was not shown to promote any form of fat loss.  The FDA has now gotten involved and has started cracking down on companies that sell, produce and distribute HCG supplements as they are not regulated or controlled by any governing body. HCG in liquid form can last up to 60 days in sodium chloride, but only when refrigerated. If reconstituted in bacteriostatic water it can hold longer but all of this is irrelevant because the molecules will destabilize over a short duration (less than 60 days). So by the time your drops have reached your doorstep, they are more than likely dead or destabilized and you are drinking or injecting nothing more than a solvent.

     So let’s say Jane decided to go against my warning and completed the HCG diet. Often times it promises 30 pounds in 30 days. So our example, Jane, has now lost 30 pounds in which most was in the form of lean muscle mass. Her body now has a much higher ratio of fat to lean mass, which will cause her metabolism to be much slower than it was before she started the HCG diet. Now when Jane decides to return to normal caloric intake levels, her body, now fresh out of starvation mode, will start to accumulate fat in a much higher rate than it did before. I haven’t even touched on the fact that it is virtually impossible to meet your nutritional needs for carbohydrates, protein, fats, and fiber with less than 500 calories per day and will most likely result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies as well. Putting your body into a starvation mode will almost always cause extreme fatigue. This by itself is not a big deal; often times we all deal with fatigue. Another concern is gallstones, which often are easily cured but in severe cases can require surgery where the gall bladder must be removed. When starvation mode occurs, cholesterol raises in the gallbladder and your body loses the ability to excrete bile properly which can cause the gallbladder to create gallstones. The biggest concern with starvation diets however is the risk of cardiovascular conditions. According to the U.S. National Mental Health Information Center, “Starvation can and will damage the heart as well as the brain, resulting in heart attack, heart failure or stroke.” These are all very serious life threatening conditions that can cause death or permanent heart issues. Starvation diets can also lead to an irregular heartbeat known as sinus bradycardia (a low heart rate defined as a resting heart rate of less than 50 beats per minute) where exercising should be avoided at all costs to prevent permanent muscle tissue damage of the heart.

     My only hope in writing this blog post is to educate and open the eyes of everyone who doesn’t fully understand how this diet works. Preserving lean mass while losing weight is the key to successful and permanent weight loss and cannot be met while on an extreme low calorie starvation diet. I tried not to jumble too much information into this blog post but felt the need for some explanation on certain areas to help the readers understand terminology and how our body’s work.



Aaron Fondry cPT, CSCS

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