What Is the HCG Diet?

Raspberries and pills

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In This Article

Before we delve into the details of the HCG diet, let it be known that this particular diet is highly unsafe, unhealthy, and illegal. This article is meant to be purely informational and we discourage anyone from trying it. There are many other, much safer weight loss options to consider.

For those who’ve ever been pregnant, the letters HCG, which stand for human chorionic gonadotropin, likely sound familiar, as they indicate a hormone that increases early in pregnancy. But you may have also heard these letters referring to a popular fad diet. What's the connection? The HCG diet combines supplements or injections of the HCG hormone with an extreme reduction of calories to achieve weight loss. Divided into three phases, the diet is a short-term eating plan intended to help people lose dramatic amounts of weight in a matter of three to six weeks. Many HCG proponents claim the diet can cause losses of up to two pounds per day.

While you may shed pounds quickly on the HCG diet, it’s not generally recognized as safe by health experts—and, according to the FDA, there is “no substantial evidence” that it’s even effective. No HCG supplements are approved by the FDA for weight loss. 

What Experts Say

“The HCG diet claims human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) products and severely restricting calories will lead to rapid weight loss. Experts warn that you should steer clear of this diet. Not only is it extreme and unsustainable, but over-the-counter HCG products are illegal.”

Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background

In the 1950s, British endocrinologist Albert T.W. Simeons became interested in using the HCG pregnancy hormone as a weight loss tool after seeing undernourished pregnant women in India deliver healthy babies. Simeons theorized that the HCG hormone channeled the women’s stored fat into energy for their children. He proposed, therefore, that the hormone could be used to boost weight loss in anyone.

Simeons’ first HCG diet protocol was based on two principles. First, it called for an intake of just 500 calories per day, spread between lunch and dinner, with unlimited amounts of water, coffee, and tea any time. Second, the plan included a daily injection of 125 iu HCG hormone. 

Since the mid-20th century, the HCG diet has had a fluctuating rate of popularity among consumers. Its promises of rapid, extreme weight loss tend to attract anyone who wants to take off weight quickly. It also may appeal especially to those who have a lot of weight to lose and are willing to take drastic measures to do so. 

Research indicates that the HCG hormone does not work the way Dr. Simeons originally theorized. No studies have confirmed that it fuels weight loss. In fact, the studies conducted on the diet reveal that HCG injections make no difference in weight reduction when compared with placebo.

Most health experts agree that weight loss achieved on the HCG diet is merely due to its extreme calorie restriction. Since general nutrition guidelines state that the average adult needs 2,000 calories per day, weight loss is inevitable on just one-quarter of that amount. 

The HCG diet is also extremely controversial for its dubious safety and legality. A number of problems stem from eating so few calories per day. Plus, no HCG supplement may be legally sold in the United States for weight loss. HCG hormones are approved by the FDA only for pregnancy and fertility-related treatments.

How It Works

A classic HCG diet plan is divided into three phases: a loading phase, a weight loss phase, and a maintenance phase. 

The intent of the loading phase is to get the body ready for the caloric restriction it will enter during the weight loss phase. During this brief two-day “primer,” people preparing to begin HCG eat extremely high fat, high-calorie foods—up to 250 grams of fat per day. (For reference, this is 2,250 calories a day just from fat.) Daily HCG hormone supplements or injections also begin at this time. Theoretically, this phase “stocks” the normal fat cells you want to keep and prepares the body to burn “abnormal” fat.

Next, people on the HCG diet embark upon the weight loss phase. During this phase, adherents continue their HCG supplements while consuming either 500 or 800 calories per day, spread over two meals. The weight loss phase may last from three to six weeks, depending on weight loss goals

Once someone on HCG has shed their desired amount of pounds, it’s time to move on to the maintenance phase. This means gradually discontinuing supplementation of the HCG hormone while slowly increasing calories. Though many HCG diet resources do not specify the number of calories you’ll eventually reach to maintain weight loss, some say 1,200 to 1,500 is an appropriate target.

What to Eat

During the brief loading phase of the HCG diet, there are no limitations on what or how much to eat. In fact, during these two preparatory days, people are encouraged to eat as much fat and as many calories as possible. Once the weight loss phase begins, however, there are a number of foods the diet discourages–and only a few that are considered acceptable.

Compliant Foods

  • Lean, fat-free protein

  • Approved vegetables

  • Approved fruits

  • Herbs and spices

  • Coffee, tea, and water

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Dairy

  • High-carb foods

  • Fats and oils

  • Sugary beverages and alcohol

  • Sweets and desserts

Compliant Foods 

Lean, Fat-Free Protein

The HCG diet’s two daily meals are based around a 3.5-ounce serving of a lean, fat-free protein. Approved choices include chicken, egg whites, white fish, crab, lobster, scallops, extra lean beef, and bison.

Approved Vegetables

Certain vegetables are allowed on HCG. To accompany your lean protein at lunch and dinner, you can choose one serving of spinach, chard, beet greens, cabbage, lettuce, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, tomatoes, onion, shallots, or radishes.

Approved Fruits

As with vegetables, a limited number of fruits are approved for HCG meals. The diet gives the green light to berries, citrus fruits, and apples, which can be included once at lunch and once at dinner. 

Herbs and Spices

Because herbs and spices are largely low- or no-calorie, they’re the primary means of flavoring food on the HCG diet. HCG-compliant recipes often use garlic, lemon juice, salt, pepper, rosemary, or thyme to season meats and vegetables.

Coffee, Tea, and Water

Whereas many of the diet’s categories are quite restrictive, a handful of beverages come with no limitations. People on HCG can drink as much coffee, tea, and water as they like. Coffee and tea may only be sweetened with stevia or saccharine, however, and the diet only allows for one tablespoon of milk per day to add richness to hot drinks.

Non-Compliant Foods 

Dairy

Besides one tablespoon of milk per day, the HCG diet’s weight loss phase does not include dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream, or any additional milk. 

High-Carb Foods

The HCG diet limits not only calories but also carbohydrates. While a single piece of Melba toast or one breadstick may be permissible at dinner (depending on your calorie intake level), grains, muffins, breads, pastas, and other high-carb foods are otherwise prohibited.

Fats and Oils

Fats and oils don’t make an appearance on HCG. Because of the diet’s dramatic limitation of caloric intake, there’s really no room for the nine calories per gram fats contain. (This goes for salad dressings as well.)

Sugary Beverages and Alcohol

The HCG diet steers entirely clear of the empty calories that beverages like soda, beer, and wine might contribute. Coffee, tea, and water are the only acceptable beverages on this eating plan.

Sweets and Desserts

It’s no surprise that sweets and desserts aren’t included on the HCG diet. High-calorie items like cookies, candies, or cakes could easily contain as many calories as a single HCG meal—so they’re left out entirely.

Recommended Timing 

The HCG diet plan recommends eating either 500 or 800 calories spread over two meals per day. The timing of these meals isn’t critical, but in general, calories are divided fairly equally between lunch and dinner. For breakfast, the diet recommends coffee or tea, which can be sweetened with stevia or saccharine. Since HCG also allows for one tablespoon of milk per day, many people elect to put it in their coffee at breakfast time.

Resources and Tips

The HCG diet requires no specific recipes, but many websites and Pinterest boards offer suggestions for meal plans that stay within the 500-calorie-per-day target. With calories divided between two meals a day, people on the HCG diet can expect to take in about 250 calories at lunch and at dinner.

Modifications

While the 500-calorie version of the HCG diet is the most popular, there is an alternate, 800-calorie plan, generally credited to Dr. Richard Lipman, M.D. Dr. Lipman claims that his plan keeps to Dr. Simeons’ original concepts of eliminating sugar and most other carbohydrates, but offers a broader variety of food options. As you might expect, many people on the HCG diet state that the 800-calorie version is more satisfying, but leads to less dramatic weight loss. 

HCG diet resources strongly discourage modifications that deviate from either of these prescribed calorie counts or the three established phases. According to HCGDiet.com, “Every time you veer off the diet (even if it’s a small detour) you will be setting yourself back by several days.”

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Will likely cause rapid weight loss

  • Offers a clear and organized plan

Cons

  • High cost

  • Hunger and its side effects

  • Nutrient deficiencies

  • Safety

  • Legality

Pros

Likely to Cause Rapid Weight Loss

Going on the HCG diet will probably lead to rapid weight loss, at least initially. But, as the evidence shows, HCG hormone injections do not influence the amount of weight people lose. These dramatic results come from limiting calorie intake to just 500 or 800 for weeks at a time. But really, starving yourself isn't exactly a pro.

A Clear and Organized Plan

As far as structure, the HCG diet is not hard to follow. Its three phases are well-delineated and its calorie targets are very specific. Plus, the amount of calories or units of hormonal injections do not vary from person to person. Therefore, there’s not much guesswork in how to adhere to the diet. For ease of use, HCG may appeal to people who like to follow rules.

Cons

Legality

In the U.S., HCG injections and supplements may only be legally marketed to treat fertility—and even then, should only be taken by prescription. The FDA has banned all over-the-counter HCG products. Therefore, any HCG product sold as a weight loss aid is actually illegal. 

Cost 

While reducing your calories on the HCG diet may save you money on groceries, the required hormonal injections certainly aren’t cheap. According to U.S. News & World Report, an HCG injection kit costs anywhere from $225 to $400 for a four- to eight-week supply.

Hunger and Its Side Effects

We all know that abstaining from food for short periods leads to serious hunger pangs. But when calorie deprivation extends over time on the HCG diet, it may result in not just hunger, but also unpleasant side effects like headaches, brain fog, fatigue, and dizziness. An intense degree of hunger could also cause people to binge eat or get caught in a loop of disordered eating, cycling from restriction to overindulgence.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Going without entire categories of foods like grains and dairy for weeks at a time is likely to result in major nutrient deficiencies. Your levels of essential vitamins and minerals may become dangerously low on the HCG diet.

Safety Concerns

Some medical experts have expressed concern that the “starvation mode” induced by the HCG diet causes the body to leech protein from the heart. This dangerous process irritates the heart muscle, causing dangerous irregular contractions called ventricular tachycardia. Men who take HCG supplements or receive injections also run the risk of developing extra breast tissue. 

How It Compares

The HCG diet is by no means the only calorie restriction diet on the market. A number of other eating plans encourage limiting daily calories to a very small number at least some days of the week. And, like HCG, other weight loss strategies like Hydroxycut rely on supplements to help users drop pounds. But where some other supplement-based diets attempt to boost metabolism, the HCG diet is based on the idea of altering the body’s hormones to turn fat into fuel. 

When compared to the USDA’s MyPlate, which provides general nutrition advice for food groups, the HCG diet’s restrictive nature may lead to major gaps in categories like dairy and grains. 

USDA Recommendations

The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines estimate that adult women need between 1,600 and 2,400 calories per day to maintain a healthy weight, while adult men need between 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day. While these recommendations are not one-size-fits-all and may vary by age, activity level, and other factors, the HCG diet’s offering of 500 or 800 calories clearly falls short of a healthy level of intake for adults. 

Similar Diets

Many diets promote the idea that weight management is as simple as restricting calories or adding supplements. In addition to the HCG diet, other diets that focus on calorie counts and/or supplements include the 5:2 Diet, the Special K Diet, and Hydroxycut. Here's a look at how they compare.

The 5:2 Diet

Like the HCG diet, the 5:2 diet restricts calories to just 500-600—but not every day of the week. On this intermittent fasting plan, people eat a normal, balanced diet five days a week and reduce their calories two days per week.

The Special K Diet

The Special K Diet is a calorie reduction plan that replaces two meals a day with Special K products like cereals and bars. As with the HCG diet, this cutback in calories typically leads to rapid weight loss. Unlike HCG, however, the Special K diet does not involve hormonal supplementation.

Hydroxycut

Not unlike HCG, Hydroxycut is a supplement marketed to help consumers get thin fast. However, its formula is based on caffeine and a variety of plant extracts—not hormones the body produces. 

A Word From Verywell

It’s easy to see why many people find the HCG diet’s promises of rapid, dramatic weight loss appealing. But with the lack of evidence supporting its effectiveness and the dangers of its extreme calorie reduction, this is one option that’s not likely to do you much good in the long run.

There’s no one-size-fits all approach to weight loss—but for most people, a more realistic, less restrictive eating plan is a far more sustainable choice than the HCG diet. 

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