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The HCG Diet: Fad or Miracle? [Plus breast milk ice cream!]

Posted Feb 27 2011 9:58pm

In a world where losing weight is an extreme sport and the risks of failing include being socially ostracized or dying, a diet where you give yourself daily injections of a hormone culled from the blood of pregnant women can seem pretty reasonable (ancient altar and stone knife, platinum subscription only). But only if it works. And therein lies the controversy surrounding the latest diet du jour, the HCG diet. (Strangely this is not the only news story this weekend to center around alternative uses for pregnant women's bodily fluids - the new "Baby Gaga" ice cream is made from "organic, pure, free range, all natural" breast milk. And lest you think it is just a stunt, it has already sold out.)

HCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin , is a hormone produced in pregnancy, first by the embryo and later on by the placenta, that helps sustain the baby's rapid growth. Infants and children have a lot of it as they are still growing like crazy (case in point: my six-year-old son ate two porkchops, a whole plateful of sauteed veggies and a full cup of wild rice for dinner. He is now, as I type this, in the kitchen having a snack because he can't go to sleep because "I'm so hungry my little legs are weak." Where does he get this stuff? It's not like anyone else in this house is dramatic...) but even adults still make it.

You may have heard of HCG from sports doping scandals . It's illegal to use in most sports but athletes sometimes risk it anyhow because of the benefits reported from the hormone. It's long been known to support muscle growth and power and can even mitigate some of the damage from using (also illegal) anabolic steroids but lately the focus has been on its purported hunger-suppressing properties.

The official HCG diet is a pretty simple plan. One: You take daily doses of HCG either through doctor-prescribed shots, sublingual drops or homeopathic drops. Two: You eat 500 calories a day. You can see why people lose about a pound a day on this diet. 500 calories a day sucks. I remember back in my disordered eating days having a limit of 800 calories a day and that was coming from an anorexic. I can tell you from personal experience that consistently eating that few calories feels terrible. According to the HCG diet gurus, that's where the HCG comes in by allowing you to eat only 500 calories a day without losing your freaking mind.

Holding tightly to my little luge sled of Intuitive Eating, I generally try to block out diet chatter. And, in case you haven't noticed, these days I also try to avoid writing much about diets. But after the experiences of a close relative and several readers - I even had two of the Gym Buddies text me about it! - I decided it warranted a post. Plus Dr. Oz did a whole show about it and how could I not love the man who first taught me the fun of investigating my own poop? (I maintain he is the best thing to come out of the Oprah-spawn franchise.)

I myself have not tried this diet - nor will I as I gave up doing dietary Experiments after my second go-round of eating disorder therapy. So to answer the question of whether or not the HCG diet works, I present to you everyone else's anecdotal evidence:

- My relative lost 30 pounds in 40 days and while he did gain back some of it after going off the diet, he's managed to keep most of it off. He also said that while the first few days were awful, after he adjusted to the small limited portions he felt really good on the diet.

- One of you readers (who asked to remain anonymous) reports using the sublingual drops and dropping 10 pounds in the first week on the diet. She was simultaneously thrilled and alarmed.

- Another reader (also anonymous) e-mailed to ask me if her hair loss and thyroid issues would be from the calorie restriction of this diet or from the HCG homeopathic drops she was taking.

- Dr. Oz, after interviewing a myriad of experts and people who've tried the diet found a studio-audience full of success stories and two who had a terrible experience with it. Although the CDC man he interviewed said that from reports coming in to the CDC, the numbers are closer to for every 1 person who has success on the HCG diet, 10 have failures and many of those end up with medical complications including amenorrhea, hair loss, mood swings, cardiac arrhythmias, fainting and gall bladder disease. He even ominously pointed out that 17 people have been reported dead from suffering cardiac arrest while on 500-calorie diets although he did not say those people were on the HCG diet specifically. Oddly, after all this Dr. Oz still concluded that the diet is "worth investigating."

For myself, there are several important issues that need to be considered with the HCG diet. First, the "HCG" part can be hugely variable with people using everything from pharmaceutical grade hormone shots to the homeopathic drops which according to the FDA man on Dr. Oz, "contain no active ingredients whatsoever". The FDA man added (you'd think I could look up his name but that would require me to sit through the whole Dr. Oz episode again and weirdly he doesn't use titles on the bottom of the screen with people's names like every other talk show host does.) that in the "hundreds" of studies the FDA has conducted not a single one has shown the HCG drops or shots to perform better than saline. So basically you're paying for the placebo effect with a fancy dropper. To reinforce this, my relative who lost the 30 pounds in 40 days? He 'fessed up afterward that he didn't actually use the HCG drops at all as he thought they were too expensive and instead just stuck with the calorie restriction.

Second, the "diet" part sends up a lot of red flags to me. As I pointed out, when I did this without the drops it was considered an eating disorder. Whether or not diet adherents progress to clinical pathology, I think it would still cause the same kinds of distress in the body resulting in everything from mood disorders to organ failure if continued long enough. Losing a pound a day seems like it would be unsustainable in the long term as well.

Third, as I learned with my many pregnancies, the higher your HCG and the faster it doubles are indicators of a healthy pregnancy (or pregnancies - too high and you've got multiples!). Short of a blood test, what's the best way to tell if your HCG is increasing rapidly? Morning sickness! (Which should rightfully be known as anytime-anywhere-puke-every-time-you-pass the seafood-counter-in -the-grocery-store sickness.) You couldn't pay me to go through that again.

Unfortunately real experiences with this diet are hard to come by. If you Google anything related to HCG and diet the first 10 screens are filled with sites selling the diet or affiliated with it. Any legitimate resources seem to be buried under all the hype. My feelings are best summed up by the nutritionist on Dr. Oz. When asked about her opinion of the diet she said (very sensibly), "Why is it a bad thing to be hungry? You should feel hunger if you're only eating 500 calories a day! It means your body is working properly."

So I'm interested in your thoughts: Have any of you tried this? What do you think of injecting yourself with pregnant lady blood product? Would you try breast milk ice cream? (If it were my own I totally would but at $22.50 a serving I'm too cheap to suckle on a stranger's teat, even if she is "free range.")

*Apparently they make pharmaceutical grade HCG by collecting the blood of pregnant women, removing the HCG and drying it to make a powder. This powder is then added in varying strengths to water to make the solution.

Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!
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