HCG: weight-loss boon or a risk to health?

By Theresa Goffredo, Herald Writer

The black, bold headline blared: “LOSE WEIGHT, BUILD MUSCLE.”   The advertisement, illustrated with a photo of a sexy, slim woman holding a football, goes on to claim that by placing a few drops of their product under your tongue, you can achieve rapid weight loss in all the right places.   The national ad ran in newspapers across the country, including in The Herald earlier this year.  However, this “new advanced” weight-loss formula is making fraudulent claims and is, in fact, illegal to sell for weight loss.
That’s the warning the Food and Drug Administration issued in January on “homeopathic” or over-the-counter forms of hCG, after a resurgence of the hormone started to gain popularity as the latest quick fix for Americans eager to drop pounds.
It’s interesting that hCG has become popular again after it first appeared on the diet scene more than 55 years ago. HCG was controversial then and still is today.

What’s hCG?
HCG stands for human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone produced by the placenta and found in the urine of pregnant women. HCG has been approved for use to treat infertility in women, but off-label hCG has also been used as a weight-loss method.  HCG is basically taken two different ways. First, it can be bought over the counter or online in the form of lozenges, oral drops, sprays or pills.   This is the method that the FDA has warned is making fraudulent claims about rapid weight-loss benefits, said Tamara N. Ward from the FDA Office of Public Affairs in Maryland.   There have also been reports of people suffering side effects from using the weight-loss supplement.
One Everett woman said she had horrible hemorrhoids and suffered mass hair loss three months after finishing the regimen of oral hCG drops — which cost her about $80 a bottle — coupled with a 500-calorie diet.  Her naturopathic doctor advised her never to do the diet again and told her he had other patients who had suffered lasting side effects, including one woman who now must take thyroid medication for the rest of her life.  “I would call the hCG diet dangerous,” said the 44-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used because she is a business owner in town.
Personal trainer Catherine Bongiorno, who owns Lift to Lose Fitness in Mukilteo, said hCG as a diet supplement is risky because “you don’t really know what you are taking in from that hCG potion in a bottle.” Though not a fan of hCG, Bongiorno said she feels her clients are safer if the hCG is prescribed by a doctor.  That is the second way to use hCG: Inject it into your body under the care of a doctor.  This method is legal if the hCG is prescribed as “off label” for weight loss.
This protocol to treat obesity with hCG injections was developed by English physician A.T.W. Simeons in the 1950s. His protocol called for hCG injections coupled with an extreme diet of 500 calories a day.  Simeons’ diet protocol produced skeptics and advocates, according to Masa Sasagawa, a naturopathic doctor at Bastyr University in Seattle, known as a forerunner in natural medicines. Sasagawa wrote a clinician’s consultation guide on the hCG topic. The opinions he expressed in the guide are his alone and do not represent those of Bastyr University. In the guide, Sasagawa wrote that some researchers said Simeons’ near-starvation diet was the real reason behind people’s weight loss. However, Sasagawa wrote, some advocates still believe “that the hCG causes the body to preferentially metabolize fat, rather than muscle and bone during hypocaloric conditions.”  In other words, some believe hCG helps a person lose fat instead of muscle. Advocates also believe hCG injections leave a person not hungry and with a sense of well-being.

HCG believer
One such hCG believer is Everett resident Lynn Pendergrass. Pendergrass, mother of an 8-year-old boy, started hCG injections May 15. This will be her second time injecting herself with hCG. She went on the regimen last summer, lost 20 pounds and maintained a 15-pound weight loss. Now she wants to go for more.  “OMG! OMG this is working!” Pendergrass recalled thinking after her first successful hCG treatment. “When you are trying to lose weight, you are sometimes just grabbing at straws and trying anything, and then those traditional methods don’t work and, even though this is controversial and there are lots of opinions out there about it, I figure, hey, it’s working for me.”  Pendergrass said she also gained lean muscle mass while losing fat mass.  She said she’s eating more than 500 calories a day, though her doctor has put her on a restricted diet of lean proteins and low carbs.   Pendergrass said her doctor is conscientious, took lots of tests and took into account her medical history.   Pendergrass’ doctor is Beth McQuinn, a graduate of Bastyr University who worked in Seattle as a naturopathic physician at SlimXpress hCG weight-loss clinic.   In March 2010, McQuinn began her own private clinic on Hoyt Avenue in Everett, and she continues to offer the hCG diet.  McQuinn said she takes a holistic approach to administering the hCG diets, taking her patients’ full health history into account along with performing physical exams and monitoring every two weeks once the patient is on the diet.

McQuinn‘s diets are not 500 calories, but are based on the average amount of calories each specific patient burns in a day, she said.  The key is small frequent meals and low carbs with an emphasis on lean proteins.  “It is so your body is kick-starting your metabolism, saying, ‘Oh, well, I’m not being starved, and I have fat stores available,’ and hCG fills in the blanks,” McQuinn said.  McQuinn said business has been pretty steady.  Through testing, McQuinn said, she knows patients are burning off fat and not muscle. Patients can maintain the weight loss if they remain on the diet and don’t revert to pizza and beer.  “The hCG, it does essentially reset a metabolism,” McQuinn said.

Placebo effect
Personal trainer Bongiorno said it saddens her the lengths people will go to lose weight.   Bongiorno said she promotes clean living over a diet mentality. She said she advises clients against hCG and points them to websites that cite its dangers.   And as for those who might be on a 500-calorie diet as part of an hCG regimen, Bongiono said she’s hesitant to work with them because of her concern for their health.  “It’s just a placebo effect,” Bongiorno said. “People believe in the drops or the shot, and really it’s just the low-cal diet that makes you lose the weight.”
McQuinn agreed that everybody can have a placebo effect as well, and that a lifestyle change has to be made regardless of whether hCG is injected or not.  “Habits are needing to be changed, and that’s why we have a holistic approach covering all the health points and balancing everything,” McQuinn said.
In his consultant’s guide for patients on the hCG weight-loss program, Sasagawa wrote that since the 1960s, there have been clinical trials to try to determine whether hCG could be used for weight loss.  As a result of one of those trials, a group of Dutch researchers “concluded that hCG was no better than a placebo on four main outcome measures: total weight loss, fat loss, reduction of hunger pain and general feeling of well being.”
That was 15 years ago. Currently, there are more than 300 hCG clinical trials under way, with researchers looking for other ways hCG might help women in the areas of breast cancer, stroke, infertility, and postpartum or endometrial disorders.  No hCG clinical trials going on today are related to weight loss, Sasagawa said “because a strong conclusion was drawn by the Dutch researchers.”   “Overstating the beneficial effects of hCG is premature at the present time,” Sasagawa wrote.

Lift to Lose Fitness in Mukilteo, 304 Lincoln Ave., Mukilteo; 425-791-4488; email Catherine Bongiorno at lifttolose@hotmail.com; www.lifttolose.com

McQuinn Naturopathic, 2808 Hoyt Ave. Ste. 201, Everett; 425-905-2487; DrMcQuinn@gmail.com; www.mcquinnnaturopathic.com.

Theresa Goffredo: 425-339-3424; goffredo@heraldnet.com.


© 2012 The Daily Herald Co., Everett, WA