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with Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Diet Scam 101: The hCG Con

After receiving numerous postings on the WebMD Diet Community about the “hCG Diet”, I’ve decided to summarize my thoughts in one blog. Here’s a recent posting that’s representative of the many I have reviewed.

avenged89 posted:

I had a couple of questions. I received an e-mail about this new diet thing called hCG Pro. It said you could lose 2-3 pounds a day. This is very unbelievable yet tempting. I was wondering if you could tell me if this product is safe. I am 21 years old and I am overweight. I desperately want to lose weight in hopes that I might feel better and have more energy. However, I only have one kidney and I have been told that I cannot take any form of diet pills as it could harm my only kidney. I just wanted to know if you could give me any advice on losing weight safely and keeping it off. I honestly believe that I would feel 100% better if I lost weight.

And after I posted my response recommending against this scam, here was the reply:

Thanks for the advice. I am so glad I got advice on this hCG thing first. I admit I was very tempted to put in the order for it. It’s very hard for me to stay on the path of losing weight as I have tried it before and didn’t do as well as I had hoped. But I am more than willing to give it another try.

As I read the posting, I was incensed at how diet scam groups prey upon the desperation of people like avenged89 who are indeed tempted by the hype and promises and are willing to throw their savings away in their frantic quest for immediate weight loss and the promise of a better life.

So, here’s the bottom line on this “hCG Diet“.

Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) is a hormone approved by the FDA for use in pre-pubertal boys to help aid normal sexual development, and in women to treat fertility problems. hCG is produced by the placenta and is also found in pregnant women’s urine. It is not approved for weight loss and has never been proven by credible peer reviewed science to cause weight loss. So how did hCG surface as a weight loss solution?

Back in the 1930′s, a physician named A.T.W. Simeons was using hCG for the standard reproductive medical conditions for which it was approved. He observed that some of his patients dropped weight while on the hCG injections. Thinking that perhaps the hCG was the cause, he administered the injections along with a dietary plan to overweight patients and noted weight loss. Please note that subsequent researchers repeated his clinical study and were never able to replicate any association between hCG and weight loss.

Since then, most independent, peer-reviewed studies have shown no difference in weight loss between subjects on a low-calorie diet who received hCG injections and subjects who received a placebo. In 1975, the FDA noted that hCG is not a weight loss drug. In 1995, the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology published a summary of research showing no hCG related weight loss association. The American Society of Bariatric Physicians does not recommend hCG for weight loss as noted in a December 2009 position paper.

Flash forward to 2007 when Kevin Trudeau published his book “The Weight Loss Cure ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About“, in which he concocted a weight loss plan which included hCG injections. Trudeau has no professional training in medicine, health or science. He is widely known as a controversial businessman who has tangled with the law regarding false health claims related to his books and products. You’d think that common sense would dictate running the other way when this guy hawks anything. But, people are desperate and when they are promised rapid weight loss and an end to their misery, they’ll often line up to sign up.

What is involved with the hCG “diet”:

1) Daily injections of hCG, with online prices ranging from $30 to more than $600 for a month’s supply. One side effect is pregnancy, as hCG increases fertility among women.

2) 500 calories per day of highly restrictive food intake, including coconut oil. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 13.6 g total fats, 11.8 g of which are artery clogging saturated fats, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

3) A range of body “flush and detox” regimens. Here’s my quote from a prior WebMD interview about this regimen. “All the flushes and cleanses are pure nonsense, unnecessary, and there is no scientific basis for these recommendations,” says nutrition and metabolism expert Pamela Peeke, MD, chief medical correspondent for Discovery Health channel. “Your body is well equipped with organs, such as the liver and kidneys, and the immune system, to rid itself of potential toxins and do an excellent job of cleansing itself without needing flushes or cleanses.

Here are other concerns related to this “diet”:

1) You’re starving yourself. Your brain alone requires 600 calories per day to function optimally. By consuming only 500 calories per day, of course you’ll drop weight. But at what price? You’re cannibalizing your muscle mass, reducing your metabolism and consequently the effectiveness of your calorie burning. If I had you consume only 500 calories per day and then injected you with water, should I now call this the amazing water cure for weight loss? hCG has nothing to do with your weight loss. Starvation does.

2) It’s impossible to do. So you blame yourself (and not the author) when you cannot complete his plan. This is a core element of the scam. People who are overweight already feel guilty and are often filled with shame. After having laid down a lot of cash and not being able to successfully comply for a month or more, they figure “Oh well, just another diet I’ve failed at”.

3) It is unsustainable. This regimen is almost impossible to adhere to for more than a very short period of time. There are no healthy eating or physical activity behaviors to learn. Eventually you would have to enter the real world. And then, what do you do?

4) It’s unsafe. You cannot meet your baseline survival nutritional requirements on a starvation plan. You can seriously alter your healthy intestinal bacterial flora with repeated “cleanses and detox” regimens. This can lead to altered bowel function and inability to appropriately absorb food nutrients, which can then impair immune function.

Further, many of you have a lot of weight to remove. You may also have associated medical problems, including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and high blood sugar levels. You could also be on medications to treat these as well as mental conditions like depression and anxiety. When people buy into a diet scam like hCG, they usually don’t tell their medical team. Rapid weight loss, radically altered food consumption, cleanses and detox regimens can seriously affect your underlying mental and physical conditions and alter the clearance and blood level of medications you’re taking.

Don’t turn yourself into a science fair project. Beware of these radical scam approaches as they can deleteriously affect your health and wellbeing. In the best of all worlds, you’re working with credible health professionals to remove your excess weight.

5) You’re not breaking food addictions. The promise is that you’ll no longer be addicted to food and any abnormal eating behaviors. Credible research has clearly shown that starvation and useless injections are not the solution to food addictions. Behavioral modification, healthy eating practices and regular physical activity have clearly been shown to control food addictions.

6) You’re broke. Take a moment and add up the total costs of the books and products required. That’s why I’ve renamed this “diet” the High Cost Game scam.

Finally, there will always be an endless supply of frauds and scams created to prey on your desires to drop weight. To help guide you, here are the Food and Nutrition Science Alliances’ “Ten Red Flags of Junk Science“:

  • Recommendations that promise a quick fix.
  • Dire warnings of danger from a single product or regimen.
  • Claims that sound too good to be true.
  • Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex scientific study.
  • Recommendations based on a single study.
  • Dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organizations.
  • Lists of “good” and “bad” foods.
  • Recommendations made to help sell a product.
  • Recommendations based on studies published without peer review.
  • Recommendations from studies that ignore difficulties among individuals or groups.

Always remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Anything worth doing in your life requires time and effort to achieve and succeed. Run from false promises like the hCG scam. Stick with life-giving whole foods and physical activity. Now, that’s better living through your own chemistry.

Posted by: Pamela Peeke, MD at 8:32 am

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