March 10th, 2011
01:29 PM ET

HCG diet: Pregnancy hormones and 500 calories a day

You may have just come across the hCG diet, a hormone-based, weight-loss program that involves eating less and taking a hormone created from pregnant ladies’ urine.

It has been around since the 1950s, but has picked up steam lately.

Here’s how it is described to work: A pregnant woman produces a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, which makes fat in the body available to nourish the fetus.

In the weight loss program, the hCG, taken as daily injections or by oral drops, is said to decrease men and women’s appetite and burn existing fat. This would shrink problem areas like hips, thighs, rear end and stomach, and allegedly melt off one to two pounds a day.

Oh yes, and dieters are limited to 500 calories a day. That's about one-third of the recommended daily calories for the average inactive woman.

Science doesn't back up hCG’s purported effect on weight loss.  More than a dozen studies have shown that the hCG injections and a placebo are about equally effective.

“Whenever you give someone a shot, it has a tremendous placebo effect,” said Dr. Louis Arrone, director of the comprehensive weight control program at New York Presbyterian Weill-Cornell Hospital.

In other words, the weight loss is no miracle.

“For starters – it's the 500-calorie diet that's causing people to lose weight,” said Dr. Melina Jampolis, CNN’s diet and fitness expert. And subsisting on such few calories a day is frankly unsafe, she said, because the dieter is not getting the necessary nutrients.

“When you go on an inadequate diet, your body responds,” Arrone said.  “It produces adrenaline; it produces other hormones that make you feel invigorated. Now this may initially seem very good but the problem is your body takes the extra protein it needs from your own muscle and so you wind up losing muscle.”

HCG fans point to enthusiastic testimonials.

Published in Marie Claire magazine, a creative director of a London fashion magazine breathlessly recalled how she lost 25 pounds on the diet, shed her “post-pregnancy stomach” and how her “long-forgotten pants fit perfectly” now. 

With such anecdotal evidence, people are happy to try  it – even if it requires a daily injection that costs up to $1,500 a month.

“I think that this underscores how difficult it is, that people will jump to anything,” Arrone said.  “They're desperate for solutions.”

The hormone has appropriate uses in treating fertility problems, but weight loss is not one of them, he said.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.