Patty Dingler tried over and over to lose weight. Sometimes she succeeded, but it always came back.
Then she found the HCG diet. She eats only 500 calories a day, and she and her husband have bumped up their walking regimen to 5 miles daily.
She shed 25 pounds in her first 30 days on the diet.
And after just the first week, "I felt 10 years younger," says Patti, 49, a contract specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Most diet regimens allow about 1,200 calories a day for the average woman. So how is she staving off hunger and fatigue?
Once or twice a day, she puts several drops of a nearly flavorless liquid under her tongue. She says it keeps her feeling good, mostly, although about one day in seven she is more tired than normal.
The drops contain a nonprescription, homeopathic form of HCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin. Naturally occurring HCG is a hormone that is produced in quantity during pregnancy. It's made by cells that form the placenta, which nourishes a fertilized egg after it attaches to the wall of the uterus.
Dingler's form of HCG is the homeopathic, or "look-alike," version. Some people following the HCG diet use the actual hormone, prescribed by a doctor and injected with a syringe every day.
HCG for weight loss isn't new; it was first popularized in the 1950s by British physician Albert Simeons and enjoyed a resurgence in the '70s. Lately it has made a huge comeback, and is widely advertised.
Dingler's husband, Wes, is a believer. "It was time for drastic measures," says Wes, a 45-year-old avionics manager. "I was on double cholesterol meds. The doctor said that on my next visit, if my blood sugar's still high, I'll have to go on insulin.
"I'm dropping about a pound a day, 33 pounds already," he says. He started at 241 with a goal of 175 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame.
The diet lays out a maintenance plan for the six weeks after discontinuing HCG. Like the 500-calorie diet, maintenance calls for no processed foods, starches or sugars, but you get about 1,500 calories daily consisting mainly of fruit, vegetables, fish and chicken.
'It's a placebo'
Most doctors' and dietitians' views of the HCG diet can be summed up in three phrases: placebo, peril and put-it-back-on.
"Either shots or drops, it's a placebo," says Dr. Craig Primack, a spokesman for the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. "Not many doctors commonly known as weight-loss doctors are using this."
The 500-calorie diet doesn't provide enough carbs or protein and will send the body into a state called ketosis. Ketosis is a natural appetite suppressant, Primack says, so he thinks that is what banishes hunger, rather than HCG.
In ketosis, the body burns stored fat, but if it's extreme, the blood pH can change, making blood too acidic and essentially corrosive to internal organs.
"The short-term ketosis problem is bad breath," says Keri Gans, registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Over an extended period, kidney stones and gallstones are common side effects, and also fatigue."
No nod for weight loss
Injectable HCG is FDA-approved for some uses, but not weight loss.
It was first used in the 1950s to boost testosterone production in boys who should be entering puberty but weren't, says Primack. It's also sometimes used to treat infertility and some cancers in men.
It's legal for physicians to prescribe drugs for "off-label use.'' But there is controversy about just how dangerous HCG injections can be, said Dr. Kenneth J. Heinrich, medical director of Physicians for Weight Loss in Chicago. "There are life-threatening effects, some say, but there are no studies documenting the frequency of adverse effects. The more common are headaches and excessive acne and hair growth."
HCG also can cause prostate problems in men, and in women, it may bring on excessive ovulation, he says.
No long-term solution
HCG dieters are setting themselves up for ultimate failure, Gans and Primack say.
"It's not a long-term solution to weight loss," says Gans. "There are not enough carbohydrates — that's the major fuel for our bodies."
Getting to the right weight is about eating healthy, Gans says, "eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and 'good carbs' like whole grains, oats, barley, quinoa, buckwheat, beans, other legumes — high-fiber carbs."
She recommends losing much more slowly, 1 to 2 pounds a week.
Primack agrees: "We live in a carb society. As soon as they're off the diet, most start gaining again."