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Is the HCG Diet a Risky Fad?

As obesity hits an all-time high, desperate dieters may be risking their health to take pounds off with the controversial hCG diet. A fad that started in the 1950s-and is now the latest weight-loss craze-the diet involves daily injections of human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) combined with extreme calorie restriction. Women all over America are flocking to doctors' offices and weight-loss clinics to shell out up to $1,100 a month for a medical visit, a supply of the hormone, and syringes to inject themselves.

A cheaper version of the hCG diet, heavily promoted on the Internet, uses hCG drops, sprays, or lozenges that claim to be "homeopathic." Both versions of the diet have sparked medical debate. "This diet is appalling," Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Center, recently told ABC News. "It takes irresponsible diets to new heights." Yet Dr. Mehmet Oz has promoted the diet on his popular TV program and declared it "worth a try." So who's right-and what's the medical skinny on the hCG diet?

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What is hCG? Human chorionic gonadotrophin is a hormone produced during pregnancy to help nourish the uterus. An injected form of the hormone is FDA-approved as a fertility treatment for women. Weight loss is a legal, but "off-label" use of the drug, since doctors are allowed to prescribe any FDA-approved drug for any medical purpose they deem appropriate. Potential side effects of hCG include depression, headaches, breast tenderness, and blood clots. The FDA recently received a report of an hCG diet patient suffering a pulmonary embolism, a potentially life-threatening condition.

What's in the homeopathic drops and sprays? The "homeopathic" drops and lozenges claim to contain an oral version of hCG. While these products, which are also sold at drugstores and General Nutrition Centers, according to USA Today, typically promise drastic weight loss (in combination with a low-cal diet), such claims are both fraudulent and illegal, the FDA warns. Only FDA-approved drugs can make medical claims, which have to be supported by clinical studies. hCG drops, sprays, and other oral versions are not approved.

The FDA also reports that although some of these products claim to be homeopathic, they are not recognized by the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia, and thus are not deemed actual homeopathic treatments (highly diluted amounts of remedies for medical conditions). Experts also say that there's no medical evidence that taking hCG orally is effective, since it would be broken down by a stomach acid.

How does the hCG diet work? Developed by a European doctor in the 1950s, the diet is based on the theory that taking oral or injected hCG will reduce appetite, thus making it easier for followers to stick to the required limit of just 500 calories per day, the equivalent of 4 ounces of tortilla chips. Its proponents say that it can lead to loss of a pound a day or more, which isn't surprising, given the near-starvation calorie restrictions.

Are very low calorie diets safe? The dangers of extreme calorie restriction-a fad of the 1970s--have been demonstrated in multiple studies, with one report published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1981 describing 17 cases in which obese people who rapidly dropped pounds on drastic diets suddenly died from heartbeat irregularities after a median of five months of dieting. The NIH recommends eating at least 1,200 calories a day for women and a minimum of 1,500 for men. In general, doctors typically recommend that dieters drop no more than two pounds per week through a nutritious low-fat diet and exercise, and advise medical supervision for diets with rapid weight loss. Does hCG increase weight loss? No-since the 1970s, the FDA has required a warning on the drug's packaging that it does not increase weight loss beyond that due to calorie restriction alone, create a more "attractive" distribution of body fat, or curb "hunger and discomfort" from dieting, as advocates claim. And more than a dozen clinical trials have found no benefit to using hCG for weight loss. Some MDs contend that all hCG does is provide a rather expensive placebo effect that may make some people on the 500-calorie-a-day diet imagine that they are less hungry.

Have you ever tried the hCG diet? What do you think of it?

Source: Yahoo Health

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