Nutrition experts share the latest science and safety concerns surrounding the hCG diet.
According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey posted on the National Center for Health Statistics, on any given day, 17.4% of the U.S. adult population over the age of 20 is on a special diet. Of those individuals on a diet, data shows it’s more likely to be a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate and weight-loss-focused diet versus the low-fat or low-cholesterol diets that once reigned supreme in the wellness world.
Given the continual interest the public has in finding a quick-fix way to lose weight, popular trending diets like the ketogenic diet and Dukan Diet continue to surface, while others such as the hCG diet have tried to make a name for themselves over the years. While the hCG diet may be new to you, it’s actually been around since the early 1950s and is touted to accelerate weight loss in conjunction with a very low-calorie diet. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the hCG diet and what nutrition experts want you to know about its safety.
What Is the hCG Diet?
The hCG diet is a very low-calorie diet—usually a range of 500 to 800 calories per day—that is used in conjunction with supplemental hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) injections as a means to stimulate weight loss. In the early 1950s, a British physician by the name of Albert Simeons began promoting the hCG diet for weight loss. Simeons made claims that the hCG diet allowed participants to burn stored body fat, not muscle mass, with testimonials claiming participants lost 20 to 30 pounds in 40 days without feeling hungry or weak.
Let’s make this clear: Science has not proved nor supported any of the claims Simeons made in the 20th century. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration has not supported the use of hCG for weight loss. While hCG is a hormone that is naturally produced in the body during pregnancy, it has not been approved by the FDA for weight loss nor for use without a prescription for any purpose.
hCG Diet Foods List
Given the lack of scientific data on the hCG diet, the list of recommended foods allowed on the very low-calorie diet are a bit subjective. According to Lauren Manaker M.S., RDN, LD, a registered dietitian and author of Fueling Male Fertility, “The hCG diet requires that people stick to a low calorie limit spread over two meals a day. Calorie-free drinks that include coffee and tea are approved, and they can be sweetened with stevia or saccharin. Lean protein, certain low-carbohydrate vegetables, berries, citrus, apples and 1 tablespoon of milk is permitted every day.”
With these factors in mind, the list of foods allowed on the hCG diet would look like this:
- Lean Proteins
- Lean Ground Beef
- Pork Loin, Tenderloin
- Turkey Cutlets
- Skinless Chicken Breast
- Baked White Fish
- Nonstarchy Vegetables
- White Mushrooms
- Limited Fruits
Is the hCG Diet Safe?
There is a simple and direct answer to this question: no. Women’s health experts, Melissa Groves Azzaro, RDN, LD, owner of The Hormone Dietitian, Kendra Tolbert, M.S., RDN, RYT, owner of Live Fertile, and Manaker are all in agreement about this.
Groves Azzaro shares, “While hCG is a hormone naturally produced by the body during pregnancy, we do not know the long-term risks of daily exogenous hCG use. The diet also involves severe calorie restriction, with followers consuming just 500 calories a day, about a quarter of what most people need. While rapid weight loss may occur at first, it would not be sustainable as one’s metabolism slows down.”
In addition, the hCG diet is very restrictive. Groves Azzaro, Tolbert and Manaker all expressed extreme concern over the potential for nutrient deficiencies. Groves Azzaro writes, “Due to the limited food choices, this raises the risk for multiple nutrient deficiencies because it limits many necessary categories of foods including starchy vegetables, grains, and legumes, which are good sources of B vitamins and fiber, oils and fats, which could lead to deficiencies in many fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K.”
Pros of the hCG Diet
While the hCG diet may appear promising for those interested in losing weight quickly, at this time, there are no scientific studies available supporting its use. In fact, a 2016 article published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements stated that there is no science available to support the efficacy of the hCG diet and use of it actually does more harm than good. Furthermore, registered dietitians interviewed unanimously agree this diet is dangerous and should not be recommended.
The only instance in which hCG—without the recommendation of the very low-calorie diet—has been recommended or approved for use by the FDA is under medical supervision and with a prescription for the treatment of infertility in certain situations.
Cons of the hCG Diet
Potential for Nutrient Deficiencies
Very low-calorie diets, like the 500 to 800 calories recommended on the hCG diet, pose a risk for nutrient deficiencies as mentioned above. A 2022 article published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene explored the concept of nutrient deficiencies and the need for preventive measures to help improve health of individuals at risk. Given that the hCG diet puts individuals who follow the diet at risk of nutrient deficiencies related to inadequate intakes of important macro- and micronutrients, it poses concern for the risk of developing other diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Preoccupation with Food
While the hCG diet is not in and of itself a style of intermittent fasting, its reduction in calories and thus minimal eating windows make it strikingly similar to a fasting-style diet. A recent 2022 study published in the journal of Eating and Weight Disorders—Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity investigated the impact low-carbohydrate diets alongside intermittent fasting have on disordered eating in university students. Findings revealed that compared to non-dieters, dieters experienced a greater preoccupation with food that led to higher levels of binge eating, food cravings and restrictive tendencies towards food and carbohydrates.
Unsustainable for Long-Term Weight Loss
A 2017 article published in the journal of Perspectives on Psychological Science explored the concept of weight loss from the lens of reducing calorie intake. While researchers found that lower calorie intakes did result in short-term weight loss, the weight loss was not sustainable and the impact this deficit had on one’s metabolism and hormones was unfavorable. Instead, the scientists called for more research exploring the mechanisms that can help with controlling one’s weight long-term aside from a reduction in calorie intake.
Should You Try the hCG Diet?
As tempting as it may be to hop on the “get fit quick” train with a low-calorie diet like the hCG diet, it’s not recommended by health care professionals, regardless of your age or life stage. Both Groves Azzaro and Tolbert see red flags throughout this diet, sharing the same sentiment that the risks outweigh any supposed benefits the eating plan advertises. Groves Azzaro goes on to say, “There are much more sustainable ways to lose weight that are backed by scientific evidence and aren’t associated with such risks.”
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are the side effects of the hCG diet?
Similar to other low-calorie diets, Groves Azzaro notes the side effects of this diet would include fatigue, irritability, depression, nutrient deficiencies, potentially constipation from the lack of fiber, dry skin, hair loss and a huge potential for weight regain. The FDA reports that serious adverse reactions have also been reported, including “cases of pulmonary embolism, depression, cerebrovascular issues, cardiac arrest and death.” Both Groves Azzaro and Tolbert also share that the hCG injections bring potential risks as well, including pain, bruising and infection at the injection sites, as well as allergic-type reactions like rash, hives and swelling.
2. How many calories do you eat on the hCG diet?
The hCG diet consists of a very low-calorie diet that ranges between 500 and 800 calories per day. These calories come from lean proteins and low-carbohydrate fruits and vegetables.
The Bottom Line
While diets that promise rapid weight loss like the hCG diet may seem alluring if you’re been trying to lose weight unsuccessfully for some time, they are neither safe nor recommended by nutrition experts. The long-term consequences include nutrient deficiencies and potential for development of disordered eating behaviors, and the unknowns of hCG use far outweigh the short-term weight-loss potential. If you’re looking for a sustainable approach to build lifelong healthy habits, consult with a health care professional who can work with your individual needs.