The HCG diet: What I learned from injecting myself with pregnancy hormones to lose weight

If you've been thinking about trying the HCG diet, I've got all the intel. I have always struggled with my weight. Never obese, I hovered somewhere in the realm of cute and chubby. Through diet and exercise, I always managed to keep myself a couple of steps from obesity, even slimming down to a size 6 in my 20s. But marriage, a pregnancy, and a move from NYC to the car-dependent suburbs saw the weight creep back on, and I was dismayed a few years back to find that my size 14s were getting harder to zip. Add the pressure of being a theatre performer, constantly stressing about how I look on stage, and worried that the costume designers would tell me that the dress they'd planned for me wasn't going to fit.

I tried dieting and ramping up my gym routine, but soon found that what worked for me in my 20s wasn't doing the trick now that I was approaching 40. I stumbled upon a tantalizing Facebook page: A group of women who claimed to be losing a pound per day by taking homeopathic, sublingual drops of HCG — the hormone that the human body makes when pregnant. The group had thousands of members, with numerous success stories with before and after photos that showed stunning transformations in short periods of time. Did it sound too good to be true? Absolutely. But I couldn't look away, and I found myself spending more and more time researching the HCG diet.

I started by researching how the diet began

The HCG diet was developed in the 1950s by Dr. Simeons, who ran an elite "health" spa in Europe. Based on the observations that malnourished women are still able to sustain pregnancies, the theory was that the hormone made during the first trimester, HCG, triggers a reaction in the body that uses stored fat as energy. He injected patients with HCG daily for 21-40 days, and placed them on an extremely regimented, ultra low calorie diet. His patients reportedly not only dropped weight quickly, but claimed to feel great, with no hunger, losing stubborn pockets of fat that had not come off on previous diets. Dr. Simeon believed that we have conditioned our body to have a "set" weight, and that HCG, with proper diet, would retrain your body to achieve a new set weight. He believed that a minimum of 21 days on the HCG, followed by a "stabilization" period, was the amount of time the body needs to magically "reset" its weight.

I was initially conflicted about the information I had learned. Was Dr. Simeons a quack? Or had he actually stumbled upon a real weight loss miracle that modern science was ignoring because it was just too controversial? My excitement about possibly finding that elusive secret formula that would be the answer to my struggles was enough for me to keep moving forward.

I discovered the world of HCG devotees

I soon found that there is an enormous world of social media and old-school internet forums dedicated to the HCG diet. There are online HCG super-stars, like HCG Chica, who write cookbooks, and have You Tube channels. Many of the people who bill themselves as experts also deal in selling the HCG itself. There are loads of devotees, mostly women, with stories of how HCG changed their lives, claiming that they were able to drop 30, 50, 100+ pounds doing multiple "rounds", and had been successful at "resetting" their weight.

I combed these groups for months. I watched as people would check in daily, with their fantastic weigh-in results. Women were losing 10 pounds in their first week, sometimes more. I started to become convinced that HCG was the magic answer I had been looking for. The most astonishing "fact" to me was the claim that such a low calorie diet wouldn't cause feelings of starvation. The devotees assured everyone that this was the miracle of HCG, that it makes your body burn your stored fat as its food, and helps your body preserve its precious muscle.

I noticed that those who had anything negative to say about HCG — that it was just starvation/fasting, that it could cause health problems, or just had questions about the legitimacy of the diet, particularly since it is not FDA approved as a weight loss remedy — were quickly thrown out of the group, with their comments erased. The devotees would dismiss these "haters" as people who had failed at following the diet, and remind everyone that you needed to have blind trust in Dr. Simeons and his original protocol. I was determined to not be a hater.

I studied the "original protocol"

Dr. Simeon's HCG diet is referred to as the "original protocol." The first part of the protocol is 2-3 days of "loading" where you basically gorge yourself, the fattier the food the better. This supposedly cushions your fat reserves for the low calorie diet to follow. I watched as many of the devotees posted happy pictures of their loading meals, stuffing their faces at the Cheesecake Factory or McDonalds, while others championed a "clean load" with fatty meats and avocado.

All that happy gorging ends abruptly with the start of phase two, the 500 calorie diet. It is incredibly limited and precise: 3.5 ounces of lean protein per meal, some veggies, some fruit, and one small cracker. Once you complete a minimum of 21 days you can eat more foods, but zero carbs/starches for another three weeks (phase three, or "stabilization"). You are instructed to completely avoid exercise, oil-based cosmetics, and massages or facials. You must drink a ton of water, with a small amount of lemon allowed. Coffee and tea are okay. You are ominously warned that if you cheat or deviate in any way at all, you must start over again, as your weight will not "reset." At the end of the three weeks of no carbs, you have then completed one "round," and should be "stabilized" within two pounds of the weight you lost on the low calorie plan. If you want to do more rounds to lose more weight, you must wait at least the amount of days that you were in phase two before beginning again.

I was a bit terrified at the idea of living in such a state of deprivation. The devotees admit it takes a lot of life planning to make sure no weddings, parties, or vacations fall in the span of your round, as there is zero room for cheats. I was also shocked to learn that some women were not taking the HCG orally, but injecting themselves with it, which seemed insane to me. The oral drops, though, I was comfortable with. I began planning my calendar.

I chose not to use a doctor

I initially thought it would seem like the smart choice to embark on a diet like this with the help of a medical professional. There are many doctors or weight loss clinics that offer HCG. The common complaint from the HCG devotees, however, is that these places often know a lot less than the rest of us who have done our research, and charge a fortune to take your blood pressure and monitor you.

Many women complained that these offices were staffed poorly, taught them everything incorrectly, and expressed grateful relief to the administrators of the Facebook groups for finally teaching them the right way. Coincidentally, many of these same Facebook groups are also actively selling the sublingual HCG drops that they are recommending. Still, I was positively hooked on all the stories and photographs of women experiencing this transformative weight loss in such a short time, who reported feeling like a million bucks. I decided pretty quickly that I could do this on my own with the help of the devotees.

I took the plunge

A friend told me of a local woman who lost 50 pounds using HCG drops, who just happened to be a distributor as well. I went to her house to purchase my first batch. My first "round" was going to be using sublingual "Omni" drops and following the original protocol — the 500 calorie diet for 21 days, followed by 3 weeks of no carbs.

The two days of loading weren't as exciting as you would think. When you are excited to lose weight, it feels counter-intuitive to gorge yourself. It also makes you start to feel sick. I gained 5 pounds just from loading, but was assured by the devotees that this would fall off in a couple days, and it was all part of the plan. I then began the 500 calorie HCG diet.

I struggled on the diet

I got through the first couple days of the HCG diet well enough, but by day three I was irritable and weak. The groups would tell me not to fear, that a few more days in I would feel amazing, and my hunger would subside. Plus, I had lost eight pounds at this point, and this was heralded as a huge victory, despite the fact that five of those pounds were put on in the first two days of the diet. I carried on, but I didn't start to feel any better.

By one week in, my hair started falling out in clumps. I had no strength, no energy, and was miserably hungry and constipated all the time. When I complained, I was told I must be doing something wrong. Every part of my process was micro-managed. I was told I must not be holding the drops in my mouth long enough, that the brand of coffee I was drinking had hidden additives that were interfering with the HCG, that I must be cheating or not measuring my food properly. I was advised to drink laxative tea. Despite my discomfort, I stuck to it and lost 17 pounds — I reached my lowest weight since having my daughter. 

The compliments were raining and my size 12 clothing was fitting me again, so I wanted to keep going. The joy didn't last long, however. As I followed the stabilization phase, I started to put weight back on, and continued once stabilization was done. I was depressed, as I was not only eating healthy, but keeping my calories pretty low. Some devotees convinced me the problem had been slight deviations I had made (flavored coffee!), and that maybe I was one of those rare people who didn't do well on drops, and needed the real deal… HCG injections.

I decided to up my game

Why didn't I just quit the HCG diet? The devotees had a dire warning for quitters who had not reached their goal weight. They would advise that if you quit before resetting your weight, you were destined to gain even more, as you will have negatively confused your body's metabolism. It made me terrified to quit, though I wasn't getting the results I had initially expected, and I often felt like crap. But my jeans were smaller… right? Maybe I just needed to take this whole thing more seriously, so I, too, could be one of those HCG success stories I drooled over all those months.

I was soon doing what I had never imagined I would do. I began ordering my HCG from India, and injecting it daily into my stomach or thigh with sterile diabetic needles. I hid this from my husband, stashing my horde in my closet and injecting in the bathroom. I felt like a drug addict. He would have been mortified to see what I was doing, especially since he always insists I look great just the way I am. I also had to be careful to not get pregnant, because the HCG can make you more fertile (the FB groups are filled with stories of "HCG babies").

I felt a little less hungry using injectables, but still not as good as all the devotees of the plan had promised. I managed to get off the eight pounds I had regained, plus another five, bringing me to 22 pounds down. Again, reintroducing more foods, even what most people would consider super clean and low in calories, caused me to start regaining. I was sick of being told by the devotees that I had made mistakes, so I decided to go "rogue."

Going rogue

The world of HCG has a whole dark world to it — the world of going "rogue." Basically, other people have come along and written books making up their own HCG diet protocols. There is the 800 calorie protocol, the 2.0 protocol (heavier on meat), and other protocols that encourage things like eating spoonfuls of coconut oil or just following the Phase 3 low carb part of the plan while injecting. 

I ended up doing a total of five rounds of HCG, experimenting with these different rogue protocols. I was convinced that I just had to find the magic HCG equation that worked for me. After all, it had worked for all those other women, right? While I did feel much better on the protocols that allowed for more food in a day, with each round I did, I would quickly gain back about half or more of what I had just lost, despite following the recommended, clean diet. Since I wasn't working with a doctor's office, I had nowhere to turn but the devotees for help.

I learned how harsh the devotees could be

Going rogue didn't win me any friends in the HCG diet community. Most groups are extremely unforgiving of anyone who deviates from the original protocol. I was a year-in at this point, and had grown the boldness of a person who was starting to realize that something was amiss.

I was kicked out of many a group when I did not abide by the laundry list of rules of what you are permitted to discuss. What topics were off limits? Anything that questions the faulty nutrition science of Dr. Simeon's diet. Or bringing up the rise and fall of HCG purveyor and author, Kevin Trudeau, who is now serving a lengthy prison sentence for fraud. Or noting the numerous scientific studies that have indicated that HCG doesn't work any better in control groups than a placebo.

I noticed more and more the women who were booted out of groups who claimed that their multiple rounds of HCG were causing serious health problems. Some reported their doctors telling them that the HCG had exacerbated issues like ovarian cysts, fibroids, even breast and ovarian cancer. And yet, in a decision I look back and marvel at, I carried on. After all, I had a form-fitting costume to wear for my next show! Common sense had been replaced in the quest to fit into my old size 8s.

I noticed other weird body changes

I realized a couple rounds into the HCG diet that my periods had gotten much heavier and longer. I became distinctly aware of when I was ovulating, because the cramping was worse than during my period. My breasts seemed to get bigger, and my feet, I kid you not, got smaller, just like they did after I gave birth to my daughter. My muscles were incredibly weak, and I had no energy to do the workouts I used to love, even in between rounds. I didn't feel healthy, and had no libido.

The devotees (in the FB groups who would still have me) would say that these things had nothing to do with the HCG, but, of course, there were other women who would chime in that the exact same thing had happened to them. Our discussions would promptly get erased.

I finally decided to stop

It was about 18 months into the HCG diet, and with all my constant losing and regaining I was only hovering at about a 10 pound total weight loss from where I had begun. The realization that I would have been in far better shape had I just eaten clean and hit the gym hard in those 18 months made me feel like a sucker. I had also spent hundreds of dollars on HCG and supplies. I read more about women who believed that HCG had given them significant health problems. I decided that I was out for good. I removed myself from all the social media groups, and tossed my supplies in the trash.

It's now been two years since my last round. I am about five pounds heavier than when I first started my HCG rounds, and still have heavy, painful periods and ovulation. Weight seems to come on much easier now, and I am only able to control it when I severely limit my carbs. I figure it's due to what I did to my body by essentially doing a yo-yo starvation diet for all those months.

Accepting what the science says

I reached out to a doctor of nutrition, to get an idea about what exactly I had been doing to my body all those months. According to Dr. Keith Ayoob, Associate Clinical Professor at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, and specialist in obesity, the weight lost on the HCG diet has nothing to do with the HCG itself, but to the severely low calorie diet, which he likens to a modified fast. 

"My concern is that it's so low in calories there are two risks: 1) you'll be unable to get enough protein to stave off a loss of "lean tissue" (nutrition-speak for "muscle") and 2) the super-low-calorie intake can cause a slowing of your metabolism… it's how your body would normally adapt to an extended deprivation of calories, but it's not what you want for someone trying to lose weight and keep it off."

But what about the claim that HCG preserves precious muscle? Not so, according to Dr. Ayoob. "There's no reliable scientific evidence that the HCG adds anything beneficial to the 500-calorie diet. The 500 calories a day will make anyone lose weight — including some muscle… the loss of muscle is bad news — muscle is what keeps metabolisms high."

So what did I learn?

I see now that even normally sensible people like me can fall hard for a "too good to be true" scheme like the HCG diet. I do struggle with the realization that I did something that could have negatively affected my health. But I also have come to a place of acceptance with the body that I have — the body that my husband loves, and that houses the person who is loved by a wealth of friends and family.

I have learned that when my daughter tells me that my tummy is the best pillow, I should savor the moments that she wants to lie there. I have realized that if by eating healthy and exercising, I still remain a size 14, that's okay. I haven't thrown out the old size 8s just yet, but I know now that the price of rushing to fit into them can be way too high.