What Is the HCG Diet?

hcg diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

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At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

HCG, which stands for human chorionic gonadotropin, is known as the pregnancy hormone since it is produced during pregnancy by the placenta. The HCG diet, however, has very little to do with pregnancy. It is a controversial weight loss plan that combines illegal HCG supplements or hormone injections with an extremely low-calorie diet.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved prescriptions for HCG drugs for the treatment of female infertility. No HCG supplements may be legally sold in the United States for weight loss, and the FDA has issued a warning about their safety and fraudulent weight-loss claims.

The HCG diet promises rapid, extreme weight loss, which may appeal to those who are looking to lose weight quickly. An early iteration of the diet began during the 1950s when British endocrinologist Albert T.W. Simeons became interested in using the HCG pregnancy hormone as a weight-loss aid. After observing undernourished pregnant women in India deliver healthy babies, Simeons theorized that the HCG hormone channeled the women’s stored fat into energy for their children. He proposed, therefore, that the hormone could be used to promote weight loss in anyone.

Simeons’ first HCG diet protocol was based on two principles. First, it called for an intake of just 500 calories per day, spread between lunch and dinner, with unlimited amounts of water, coffee, and tea any time. Second, the plan included a daily injection of 125 IUs of the HCG hormone.

The modern HCG diet combines manufactured HCG supplements or injections of the HCG hormone with an extreme reduction in calories. Divided into three phases, the diet is a short-term eating plan intended to help people lose dramatic amounts of weight in three to six weeks. Many HCG proponents claim the diet can cause weight loss of up to two pounds per day.

While you may shed pounds quickly on the HCG diet, it is not recognized as safe by health experts. According to the FDA, there is “no substantial evidence” that it’s even effective. Most experts agree that weight loss achieved on the HCG diet is due to extreme calorie restriction, not necessarily the HGC hormone itself.

The HCG diet is highly unsafe, unhealthy, and illegal. This article should be used solely for informational purposes since health experts discourage anyone from trying it. There are many other weight loss options to consider that are much safer.

What Experts Say

“The HCG diet claims human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) products and severely restricting calories will lead to rapid weight loss. Experts warn that you should steer clear of this diet. Not only is it extreme and unsustainable, but over-the-counter HCG products are illegal.”

Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

What Can You Eat?

The HCG diet is not the only calorie restriction diet for weight loss. A number of other eating plans encourage limiting daily calories to a very small number at least some days of the week. Similar to the HCG diet, weight-loss strategies like Hydroxycut or Isagenix rely on supplements to help people drop pounds.

Some supplement-based diets claim to boost metabolism, but the HCG diet is based on the idea of altering the body’s hormones to turn fat into fuel. A typical HCG diet plan is divided into the following three phases:

  1. Loading phase: The loading phase claims to prepare the body for the caloric restriction it will enter during the weight loss phase. During this brief two-day “primer,” people preparing to begin the HCG diet eat extremely high fat, high-calorie foods—up to 250 grams of fat per day, and are encouraged to eat as much fat and as many calories as possible. (For reference, this is 2,250 calories a day just from fat.) Daily HCG hormone supplements or injections also begin at this time. Theoretically, this phase “stocks” the normal fat cells you want to keep and prepares the body to burn “abnormal” fat.
  2. Weight loss phase: Next, adherents continue their HCG supplements while consuming either 500 or 800 calories per day, spread over two meals. The weight loss phase may last from three to six weeks, depending on an individual's weight loss goals. 
  3. Maintenance phase: Once someone on HCG has shed their desired amount of pounds, they gradually discontinue supplementation of the HCG hormone while slowly increasing calories. Though HCG diet resources do not specify the number of calories you’ll eventually reach to maintain weight loss, some state that 1,200 to 1,500 is an appropriate target.

During the brief "loading phase" of the HCG diet, there are no limitations on what or how much to eat. But once the weight loss phase begins, however, there are a number of foods the diet discourages–and only a few that are considered acceptable.

What You Need to Know

The HCG diet plan recommends eating either 500 or 800 calories spread over two meals per day. The timing of these meals isn’t critical, but in general, calories are divided fairly equally between lunch and dinner. For breakfast, the diet recommends coffee or tea, which can be sweetened with stevia or saccharine. Since HCG also allows for one tablespoon of milk per day, many people elect to put it in their coffee at breakfast time.

The HCG diet requires no specific recipes, but many online resources offer suggestions for meal plans that stay within the 500-calorie-per-day target. With calories divided between two meals a day, people on the HCG diet can expect to take in about 250 calories at lunch and at dinner.

While the 500-calorie version of the HCG diet is the most well-known, there is an alternate 800-calorie plan, generally credited to Dr. Richard Lipman, MD. Dr. Lipman claims that his plan adheres to Dr. Simeons’ original concepts of eliminating sugar and most other carbohydrates, but offers a broader variety of food options. Proponents of the HCG diet have found the 800-calorie version more satisfying but have experienced less dramatic weight loss. 

Research indicates that the HCG hormone does not work the way Dr. Simeons originally theorized. No studies have confirmed that it fuels weight loss. In fact, studies conducted on the diet reveal that HCG injections make no difference in weight reduction when compared with a placebo.

What to Eat
  • Lean protein

  • Approved vegetables

  • Approved fruits

  • Herbs and spices

  • Coffee, tea, and water

What Not to Eat
  • Dairy

  • High-carb foods

  • Fats and oils

  • Sugary beverages and alcohol

  • Sweets and desserts

What to Eat

Lean Protein

The two daily meals on the HCG diet are based around a 3.5-ounce serving of lean protein. Approved choices include chicken, egg whites, white fish, crab, lobster, scallops, extra-lean beef, and bison.

Approved Vegetables

Certain vegetables are allowed on the plan. To accompany lean protein at lunch and dinner, one serving of spinach, chard, beet greens, cabbage, lettuce, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, tomatoes, onion, shallots, or radishes is allowed.

Approved Fruits

As with vegetables, a limited number of fruits are approved for HCG meals. These include berries, citrus fruits, and apples, which can be consumed once at lunch and once at dinner. 

Herbs and Spices

Because herbs and spices are largely low- or no-calorie, they’re the primary means of flavoring food on the HCG diet. HCG-compliant recipes often use garlic, lemon juice, salt, pepper, rosemary, or thyme to season meats and vegetables.

Coffee, Tea, and Water

While many of the diet’s food categories are restrictive, a handful of beverages come with no limitations. People on the diet can drink as much coffee, tea, and water as they like. Coffee and tea may only be sweetened with stevia or saccharine, however, and the diet only allows for one tablespoon of milk per day to add richness to hot drinks.

What Not to Eat

Dairy

Aside from one tablespoon of milk per day, the HCG diet’s weight loss phase does not include dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream, or any additional milk. 

High-Carb Foods

The HCG diet limits not only calories but also carbohydrates. While a single piece of Melba toast or one breadstick may be permissible at dinner (depending on the level of calorie intake), grains, muffins, bread, pasta, and other high-carb foods are otherwise prohibited.

Fats and Oils

Fats and oils don’t make an appearance on the HCG diet. Because of the diet’s dramatic limitation of caloric intake, there’s no room for the nine calories per gram fats contain. (This goes for salad dressings as well.)

Sugary Beverages and Alcohol

The HCG diet steers clear of the empty calories that beverages like soda, beer, and wine might contribute. Coffee, tea, and water are the only acceptable beverages on this eating plan.

Sweets and Desserts

Sweets and desserts are not included in the HCG diet. High-calorie items like cookies, candies, or cakes could easily contain as many calories as a single HCG meal, so they’re omitted entirely.

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Rapid weight loss

  • Plan is easy to follow

Cons
  • High cost

  • Hunger and its side effects

  • Nutrient deficiencies

  • Safety

  • Legality

Pros

Rapid Weight Loss

Going on the HCG diet will probably lead to rapid weight loss, at least initially. But as the evidence shows, HCG hormone injections do not influence the amount of weight that people lose.

Easy to Follow

The HCG diet is not hard to follow in terms of structure. Its three phases and calorie targets are quite specific, and the number of calories or units of hormonal injections does not vary from person to person.

Cons

HCG Supplements Are Illegal

In the U.S., HCG injections and supplements may only be legally prescribed to treat female infertility. The FDA has banned all over-the-counter HCG products, and therefore, any HCG product sold as a weight loss aid is illegal. 

Program Is Expensive

While reducing your calories on the HCG diet may save you money on groceries, the required hormonal injections certainly aren’t cheap. According to U.S. News & World Report, an HCG injection kit costs anywhere from $225 to $400 for a four- to eight-week supply.

May Cause Extreme Hunger

Abstaining from food for short periods leads to serious hunger. But when calorie deprivation is extended, it may result in not just hunger, but also unpleasant side effects like headaches, brain fog, fatigue, and dizziness.

Going without entire categories of healthy food groups for weeks at a time is likely to result in nutrient deficiencies.

Is the HCG Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods including fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy products, and healthy fats for a well-balanced diet. The HCG diet’s restrictive nature can easily create some major gaps in categories like dairy and whole grains. 

The USDA also advises that adult women need between 1,600 and 2,400 calories per day to maintain a healthy weight, while adult men need between 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day. While these recommendations may vary by age, activity level, and other factors, the HCG diet’s offering of just 500 or 800 calories falls short of a healthy number of calories for adults. Use this calculator to find out the right number of calories to meet your goals in a healthy, sustainable way.

Federal nutrition guidelines state that the average adult needs around 2,000 calories per day for weight management and 1,500 a day for weight loss, but the HCG diet meets only a fraction of these requirements. Following a very low-calorie diet without medical supervision is dangerous and may cause nutrient deficiencies.

Health Benefits

There are no known health benefits associated with the HCG diet, and any weight loss experienced on the plan is unsustainable. It is essentially a starvation diet. Keep in mind that dramatic weight loss stems from limiting your calorie intake, in this case, to just 500 or 800 calories a day for weeks at a time. Remember that HCG supplements are also unsafe and illegal, and there are healthier approaches to both weight loss and weight maintenance.

Health Risks

Not getting enough daily calories for an extended period of time can lead to an intense state of hunger. This may cause some people to binge eat or get caught in a loop of disordered eating, cycling through periods of restriction followed by overindulgence. Not eating enough may cause some individuals to become underweight and develop deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals, which can lead to malnutrition and other health problems.

Additionally, some medical experts have expressed concern that the “starvation mode” induced by the HCG diet causes the body to leech protein from the heart. This dangerous process irritates the heart muscle, causing dangerous irregular contractions called ventricular tachycardia. Men who take HCG supplements or receive injections also run the risk of developing extra breast tissue.

A Word From Verywell

Many people have found the HCG diet’s promises of rapid, dramatic weight loss appealing. But the lack of evidence supporting its effectiveness and the dangers of its extreme calorie restriction is not worth the risk. For most people, a realistic and balanced weight loss plan is a healthier, sustainable choice.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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