Beta-hCG, the FAD Diet That Just Won't Go Away

What does this mean for clinicians? It means they’re doing harm.
What does this mean for clinicians? It means they’re doing harm.

In 1954, Dr Simeons proposed a weight-reduction regimen in which individuals supplemented a 500-calorie-per-day diet with daily injections of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) hormone. This is a hormone produced during pregnancy that is responsible for maintaining the corpus luteum and progesterone production throughout pregnancy. 

According to Rabe et al., Dr Simeons did not suggest that hCG would promote faster or more significant weight loss than was achievable without hCG1, but rather that it would help overweight people stick to the diet by: helping them tolerate the extremely low calorie count (i.e., by decreasing appetite); focusing weight loss on specific parts of the body—such as the belly, thighs and hips—by mobilizing fat from those areas; and by decreasing the loss of fat-free mass (FFM) in order to maintain higher basal metabolic rates and resting energy expenditure (REE).

The problem is that there was no objective proof for these claims, both then and to this day. Dr Simeons' theory was based on anecdotal evidence from observations he made while treating pregnant Indian women who had deficient diets and overweight boys with pituitary problems whom he treated with hCG. His theory is based on speculation rather than objective evidence. Yet with no reasonable evidence to support the practice, there are clinicians who continue to promote this baseless diet.

The fad initially began in Rome, where Dr Simeons developed his novel diet protocol. Then, like a virus, it spread to the United States, where it became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Multiple studies have aimed to validate Dr Simeons' theory and protocol since its appearance in 1954. However, most studies have shown that the regimen has no benefit at all. Rather, any weight loss is due to the severely restricted caloric intake. Anyone who consumes only 500 calories per day will lose weight. Dr Barrett from Diet Scam Watch notes that such a low-calorie diet is more likely to result in severe protein loss2, which will lead to a decreased resting metabolic rate and ultimately, weight gain that exceeds baseline weight. In fact, such a scenario is well supported in textbooks on the endocrine system.

Nonetheless, the diet was very popular. As fitness guru Dr Gabe Mirkin put it, the diet became popular among physicians because it guaranteed steady income, since patients had to come in weekly for their injections2-3. Herein lies a big problem—physicians promoting an unfounded therapy in the name of profit. In 1976, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered several private corporations that were promoting the hCG diet to cease claiming that these diets were safe, effective or approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for weight loss2.

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