What is the HCG diet? Is It Safe and Effective?

HCG diet has been around for several years. It promises to help people lose between half a pound to one pound a day. FDA considers this diet unhealthy and dangerous and advises people to steer clear of it (1). However, many people are still attracted to this fad diet and its promise of quick weight loss. So, is this diet a miracle weight loss program, or is it gimmicky and unhealthy? Read on to find out?

What is the HCG diet?

Human Chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) is a hormone that is produced during pregnancy to help the embryo and fetus develop. It helps to produce hormones like progesterone and estrogen, which are essential for the development of the embryo. People in the medical community use it for different purposes, like treating fertility issues in women and hormone issues like hypogonadism in men.


The HCG diet uses HCG supplements and calorie restriction to promote weight loss. The promoters of this diet claim that taking HCG can reduce hunger and improve weight loss by redistributing body fat from the hips, thighs, and stomach. The HCG diet limits your calorie intake to 500 calories a day for 8 weeks while taking HCG in the form of injections, or homeopathic products like oral drops, pellets or sprays.

A British physician named ATW Simeons proposed HCG as a weightloss tool in 1954. He saw other doctors use HCG to treat children suffering from Frohlich’s syndrome, a condition with symptoms that include slow development of reproductive organs and obesity. This treatment gave him the idea that HCG could be injected into obese individuals who did not have Frohlich’s syndrome as a means of losing weight.

When he injected obese individuals with HCG, he found that while HCG alone does not cause weight loss, it makes drastic calorie restriction possible. He claimed that HCG was a powerful appetite suppressant.

Phases of HCG diet

This diet has three phases.

1. The loading phase

This phase lasts for two days and involves taking HCG and eating plenty of high-fat and high-calorie foods.

2. The weight loss phase

This phase of the HCG diet can last from three to six weeks. During this phase, you continue to take HCG but restrict your food intake to 500 calories. You are allowed to take only two meals a day during this phase, preferably lunch and dinner.

3. The maintenance phase

During this phase, you stop taking HCG and increase your food intake gradually. However, you must avoid taking sugar and starch for three weeks.

Foods to eat and foods to avoid

In addition to taking HCG hormone, you are advised to limit your calories to 500 a day. The foods you can eat are –

Lean proteins

These include white meat, poultry, white fish, shellfish, and lean red meat like veal. You can eat seven ounces of protein a day, which you can divide between lunch and dinner. Measure the meats before they are cooked to ensure that the portions aren’t large. Strip any visible fat from the meat and boil it or grill without any fat.

Low-calorie vegetables

You can eat one low-calorie vegetable at lunch and dinner. These include cucumber, onions, radishes, asparagus, tomatoes, celery, cabbage, spinach, and other green leafy vegetables.


You can also have a single piece of Melba toast or a breadstick at lunch and dinner.


During lunch and dinner, you can have one serving of fruit like apple, orange, a handful of strawberries or half a grapefruit.

Food flavorings

While you cannot add butter or oil to your food, you can flavor your food with salt, pepper, marjoram, thyme, mustard powder, and basil. Vinegar and garlic are also allowed.


You can drink as much water as you want. Drink your coffee or tea unsweetened or add a sugar substitute. Just one tablespoon of milk is allowed in a day, which you can add to your hot beverage.

Does HCG diet allow dietary preferences?

Although the proponents of this diet say anyone can follow the HCG diet, that doesn’t mean it is safe for vegans and vegetarians. Vegetarians are advised to drink extra skim milk to make up for not getting protein from meat sources. Since milk is a dairy product, this diet is not suitable for vegans. HCG diet is not a gluten-free diet.

Does HCG diet work?

According to the proponents of the HCG diet, it helps to lose weight by reducing appetite and boosting metabolism. However, several studies done over the years show that the weight loss through this diet is due to the deficient calorie intake and has nothing to do with the HCG hormone.

A 1977 study from the University of California studied the claims of use of HCG in weight loss through a double-blind, randomized trial using injections of HCG or placebo. The results showed that the weight loss was identical between the two groups. There was no difference in hunger, mood, or localized body measurements of the two groups (2).

During a 1990 study from the University of Stellenbosch, 40 obese women were placed on a diet supplying 5,000 KJ per day and received injections of saline or HCG for six days a week for six weeks. The results showed no advantage of HCG on hunger levels, body circumference, or fasting blood sugar levels. They concluded that there was no rationale for the use of HCG in the treatment of obesity (3).

A review of clinical studies published in 1995 in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology concluded that there is no scientific evidence that HCG causes weight loss, staves of hunger, leads to redistribution of fat or induces feelings of well-being (4).

These studies show that there is no advantage of taking HCG. The only explanation of the weight loss on the HCG diet is that people restrict themselves to 500 calories a day. Much of this weight loss is water and lean muscle mass. You may achieve weight loss in the short term, but this kind of restrictive diet can lead to heart arrhythmias, nutrient deficiencies, and electrolyte imbalances.

Is the HCG diet safe?

HCG is not approved for weight loss by the FDA. According to FDA’s Health Fraud and Consumer Outreach Branch, it is illegal to sell products claiming to contain HCG as an OTC drug product. The companies that sell these products can face enforcement actions, legal penalties, or criminal prosecution (5).

Most of the HCG supplements sold over the counter are labeled and sold as ‘homeopathic.’ Since homeopathic supplements are not regulated and controlled by the FDA, there is leniency to what is actually inside the supplements. These supplements do not contain HCG. Real HCG injections are administered as a fertility drug, and they are available only through a doctor’s prescription.

What are the side effects of the HCG diet?

While there is no benefit of taking HCG for weight loss, taking this hormone may cause some side effects. These include –

  • Depression
  • Edema (build-up of fluids in body tissues)
  • Gynecomastia (Enlarged breasts in males)
  • Breast tenderness
  • Thromboembolism (blood clots)
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue

Some people may also be allergic to HCG. Seek medical help if you have signs of an allergic reaction like hives, difficulty breathing, and swelling of your face, tongue,  lips, or throat. Taking HCG can also change the result of a pregnancy test. A woman may test positive for pregnancy when she is not pregnant if she takes HCG.

In one case, a 64-year-old woman who was on HCG diet developed shortness of breath and leg swelling. Tests revealed that she had developed blood clots in her legs and lungs. The doctors observed that the HCG diet was the probable cause of the patient’s adverse effects (6). Severe calorie restriction can also affect health and cause side effects. These include –

  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Muscle loss
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Deficiency in vitamins and minerals
  • Increased risk of gallstones
  • Risk of complications in people with diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease.

Once people are no longer on a severely restricted diet, they are likely to gain back the weight they have lost. According to a review published in ISNR Obesity, various compensatory mechanisms, including changes in metabolism, the body’s hormones, and appetite, oppose new weight loss due to severe calorie restriction. This compensation may result in weight regain back to the obese baseline (7).

Final thoughts

The HCG diet uses HCG supplements and calorie restriction to promote weight loss. The promoters of this diet claim that taking HCG can reduce hunger and support weight loss by redistributing body fat from different parts of the body. Quick fixes and fad diets like HCG diet may be tempting for those trying to lose weight quickly, but they are not safe.

There is no research available that shows that this diet is safe and effective.  Not only is HCG not approved by the FDA for weight loss, but the deficient calorie intake of this diet can also cause more harm to your health. Instead, you should opt for a healthy, nutritious, and balanced diet.


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