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The hCG Diet: What Goes Around Comes Around

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Remember the Peter Allen/Carole Bayer Sager song "Everything Old is New Again?" It keeps running through my mind, because hCG for weight loss, an idea that originated in the 1950s and became a popular fad in the 1970s, is back.

HCG stands for human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone found in the urine of pregnant women and used, with FDA approval, as a fertility drug. The 70s scheme was that if you injected hCG daily for a specified number of days and at the same time went on a 500-calorie a day diet, you would shed pounds without that hungry feeling one would expect from near starvation.

The current plan is pretty much the same, except hCG, (and what online sellers claim is hCG), is now available in other ways -- sprays, liquid drops, and creams. The FDA says that there is no evidence that hCG is effective for weight loss, but lack of evidence-based proof is not dissuading the true believers.

A 500-calorie near-starvation diet, with or without an imaginary magic bullet like hCG, is clearly not conducive to any long term, sustainable method of weight loss, and does nothing to educate about or modify lifestyle. There is no good reason to "jump start" a diet by punishing oneself with near-starvation, but there is a good reason not to -- the odds are the dieter will quit and put the weight back on.

HCG is only one very-low-calorie weight loss scheme from the past. Master Cleanse, an early 1940s liquid starvation diet that involved drinking lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and laxative tea made a comeback last year, and if "cleansing" or hCG can return, perhaps we'll see one of the following diets reappear soon.

Elfin Fat Reducing Gumdrops: "Chew and grow thin" was the slogan for this popular product from the 1920s. Oh yes, calories were also reduced by 50 percent, and no dessert, candy, butter or oil was allowed. And yet, in spite of the fact that the "diet directions ... alone, if followed, might result in a loss of weight," (as a chemist stated at the time), many believed that you also needed Elfin gumdrops if you wanted to lose weight.

Each peppermint flavored drop contained 1.4 grains of the laxative phenolphthalein, which was thought harmless at the time. The FDA reclassified phenolphthalein in 1999 as "NOT generally recognized as safe and effective" due to studies indicating it as a potential carcinogenic risk and a substance that "can cause mutations to DNA."

Ear Staple-puncture was a fad in the 1970s. The theory was that the ear held obesity nerve endings that could be controlled by the stapled-in clips. The dieter, who was allowed only 400 calories a day, could wiggle the clips when hungry, and they must have been reached for on a regular basis.

Pineapples and lamb chops for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and nothing else) was popular in the 1920s and 1930s. The idea was that you could eat as many lamb chops as you wanted, because the pineapple prevented them from being stored as fat. (1)

"The Last Chance Diet," created by osteopath Dr. Robert Linn in the 1970s, allowed only water, coffee and diet soda, plus 300-calories a day of a special liquid protein. Dr. Linn recommended his own product, which he manufactured inexpensively out of chemically predigested animal hides, artificial flavors and preservatives, and sold at great profit as "Prolinn." (2)

Although the FDA, physicians, and scientists warned that serious and even critical health issues could occur unless carefully monitored, the New York Times estimated that millions were on "The Last Chance Diet." The craze ended in1978, when there were 15 deaths suspected by the FDA of being connected to Linn's plan, either due to starvation, damage to kidneys, liver, and heart brought about by starvation without supervision, or toxicity in the liquid protein products. (3)

Referring to the law of thermodynamics, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said: "A weight loss book written by physicists would be one sentence long. Consume calories at a lower rate than your body burns them." Yet, it can be psychologically comforting to think that eating less and moving more isn't enough, and that there is a third piece to the puzzle, finally revealed.

What makes any fad successful is the ability to get people to believe in, and even defend, the irrational. That is the key to all of the modified starvation (plus costly "adjunct") diets -- they may be expensive and end in emotional anguish, but temporarily they provide both a quick fix and hope. Like astrologers and psychic healers, diet charlatans tend to appeal to people at their most vulnerable -- when they need to believe in anything -- even if it is using a fertility drug off label to lose weight.

References:

(1)Yager, Susan. The Hundred Year Diet. America's Voracious Appetite For Losing Weight. Rodale, 2010. P.34.
(2)Brozan, Nadine. The Liquid Protein Diet Controversy. New York Times. May 18, 1977.
(3) Hollie, Pamela G. Liquid Protein: Turmoil Intensifies. New York Times. January 27, 1978.

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