Doctor with patient
Hemera Technologies/ Images

The HCG diet involves eating only 500 calories per day and getting daily injections of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), a hormone pregnant women excrete in their urine after developing it in the placenta. The most controversial aspect of the diet may not be the HCG but the damage starvation dieting can cause.

HCG as a Diet Aid

HCG is supposed to prevent the dieter from feeling hungry and light-headed from calorie restriction, according to a Nov. 2, 2009, Los Angeles Times article. Dr. A.T.W. Simeons developed the diet in the 1930s and claimed that his patients’ appetites sharply declined as they lost significant hip and waist size -- but not weight. He concluded that the HCG redistributes fat in other parts of the body where it can be metabolized more easily.

Subsequent Studies

Doctors who followed Simeon’s protocol reported success but when doctors later compared patients who received HCG injections to those who got saline injections (a placebo), “the two groups both lost weight at the same rate--and all 45 participants complained of being constipated, hungry or weak,” the LA Times reported. A 1995 literature search of multiple studies of the HCG diet published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology revealed that few, poorly conducted studies of the diet’s effectiveness had been done, and only one credible study appeared to confirm Simeon's findings. The authors concluded “that there is no scientific evidence that HCG is effective in the treatment of obesity; it does not bring about weight-loss or fat-redistribution, nor does it reduce hunger or induce a feeling of well-being.”

Complications of Extremely-Low-Calorie Diets

Weight loss has been linked to reduction in healthy liver enzymes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Liver enzyme levels decreased in men who ate an 800-calorie diet. The liver enzymes in women on this diet increased significantly, on the other hand, but only temporarily, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found.

The Foundation for Overcoming Liver Disease warns that extreme dieting (starvation) can aggravate existing fatty liver disease and a form of nonalcoholic hepatitis to the point of leading to cirrhosis or liver failure. The foundation and the University of Maryland Medical Center also say that extreme dieting can cause gallstones. If stones block the bile ducts, they can cause fatal infections in the ducts, the pancreas and the liver, these sources warn.

Potential HCG-Liver Cancer Link

A study of adults with liver cancer revealed that these tumors produced HCG, an article in the German journal Virchows Archive reported.