Why the HcG Diet is a bad idea, and what you should do instead

A few weeks ago, I published a diet diary by a woman who was following the HcG Diet.  In that article, I briefly mentioned that I think the HcG Diet is a bad idea. 

Yes, you will lose weight on it- eating 500 calories a day will do that.  But you’ll also gain that weight back.  One reader told me she followed the diet three separate times, and gained the weight back each time.   

Today I want to explain why it’s unsafe and generally ineffective in the long run, and what you should do instead.   

It crashes natural hormone production.  Starvation diets will make your body stop producing hormones, particularly sex hormones.  As a result, your body will preferentially burn muscle rather than fat, in addition to all the other effects of crashed testosterone and estrogen levels, like joint pain, high blood lipids, and depression. 

The HcG diet aims to prevent this by having you inject human chorionic gonadotropin, a synthetic analogue of luteinizing hormone, which signals your body to produce testosterone.  The problem with that it, the HcG can shut down your natural LH production, so instead of crashing your hormone levels during the diet, you crash them as soon as you stop injecting HcG. 

Men seem to be more susceptible to this long-term damage than women; since women’s hormone production naturally fluctuates every month, the female hormonal system is built to recover from crashes. 

On the other hand, women are more susceptible to short-term hormonal disruptions from HcG, since it prevents them from going through the normal highs and lows of the menstrual cycle.  For comparison purposes, women who take HcG for fertility purposes typically take it for only five days leading up to ovulation, not all month long.

What you should do instead: Learn how to improve your testosterone naturally.  Sleep 8 hours a night, and eat a healthy diet with plenty of fat.

It’s hard to stick to.  Eating 500 calories a day is really, really hard.  Most people who start the HcG diet are unable to actually follow it.  That alone is a great reason to follow a more moderate diet- a good diet you can follow is better than a great one you can’t follow. Better to learn to build habits that will be permanent and (relatively) easy to stick to. 

However, as you saw in that other article, the HcG diet does get easier to follow after a couple weeks, as hunger dies down.  But that’s another problem altogether…

It puts you in starvation mode.  “Starvation mode” is really overblown, and often used by overweight people as an excuse not to cut calories.  You have to cut calories really, really low for an extended period of time to truly enter starvation mode…but the HcG diet does just that. 

After a week, your body will start to slow down its metabolism, and also burn muscle in order to slow your metabolism even further.  After another week or so, you’ll stop feeling hungry, but that’s not a good thing.  It just means your body has given up on you finding food, and switched its strategy from “eat more” to “burn less energy until more food becomes available.” 

It creates nutrient deficiencies.  The HcG diet doesn’t give you enough fat and protein to meet your body’s needs.  Maybe it could, if you cut out all carbs and ate 60+ grams of protein and 30+ grams of fat a day, which isn’t what the diet calls for.  But that’s just your macronutrients.

You still have to worry about micronutrients- your vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and all that other awesome stuff you get from food.  You won’t get enough of them on 500 calories a day.  You could take a multivitamin, but that’s a poor substitute- most of the nutrients in a vitamin tablet just aren’t as bioavailable as nutrients in food. 

You can’t exercise.  When you’re only eating 500 calories a day, your body can’t recover from exercise, so people on the HcG diet stop exercising until they get past that phase of the diet and start eating more.  But by then the damage is done.

Without doing any weight training, a large caloric deficit is guaranteed to lead to muscle loss.  And that means your body is burning fewer calories every day, and you’ll easily gain the weight back later.  Better to eat more, and also get sufficient exercise- like my fat-burning hurricane sprint workout, or my super-short morning workouts.

It doesn’t teach good lifelong habits.  This is the number one reason why people regain weight they lost- because as soon as they’re done losing weight, they switch to a diet that’s nothing like the one they used to lose weight. 

What people should do is, when they reach their target weight, they should gradually relax their diet until they’re eating enough to maintain their weight.  In other words, they should continue to follow a slightly watered-down version of their weight loss diet, rather than abandoning it altogether.  But when your weight loss diet is 500 calories a day, this isn’t possible- you have to just abandon the diet altogether. 

But here’s the silver lining.

Like I said, the HcG diet is really hard to follow.  I don’t know if I could follow it.  That does mean that if you can follow it, you can also follow a diet that actually works.  So if you’re thinking about trying the HcG diet, or if you have tried it, regained the weight, and want to know what you should do next, try one of the following options. 

Alternative 1: The Atkins Diet

The Atkins Diet is sort of like the HcG diet toned way, way down.  It follows a similar structure where you cut calories really low at first, then gradually raise them.  However, you don’t cut calories low enough to go into starvation mode, you don’t cut them so low you can’t exercise, and you don’t take drugs.

The Atkins Diet is low in carbs and high in protein, which is ideal for fat loss and appetite control.  Most people eat way to many carbs; the Atkins Diet will help you break your carb addiction and get sued to eating fewer.  When you get to the final, maintenance phase, you can eat carbs in moderation, but it’ll be easier not to overindulge. 

Alternative 2: Protein-sparing modified fast

This is a really extreme option, and is only recommended for people who are morbidly obese.  Meaning, your body fat percentage should be over 35% if you’re male, or 40% if female.  It also should only be done under medical supervision.

What you do here is cut almost all carbs and fat out of your diet, but eat a lot of protein.  You eat about .8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass, along with less than 20 grams each of fat and carbs per day.  So basically, lean meat, vegetables, and not much else. 

For most people this works out to well under a thousand calories a day, which is still quite extreme, but it doesn’t burn up your muscle or put you into starvation mode, at least for a few months, and again assuming you’re obese.  Once you’re merely overweight and not obese, you need to switch to something a bit less radical.

Alternative 3: The ketogenic diet

The ketogenic diet is an extreme form of low-carb diet in which protein is also somewhat restricted, so that almost all energy comes from fat.  A typical ketogenic dieter would get around 70% of their calories from fat, 25% from protein, and no more than 5% from carbohydrates.  It can be tough to follow, but it’s great if you love fatty foods moreso than carbs. 

By keeping carbohydrate intake extremely low without letting protein intake get very high, the ketogenic diet actually changes the way your body processes energy.  It causes your body to prioritize ketogenesis- the creation of ketone bodies- over other energy pathways.  The first week can be gruelling as your body adapts to ketone metabolism, but once it does, you can start burning fat at an incredible rate, while maintaining or even gradually gaining muscle mass. 

Alternative 4: Skip breakfast and have a low-carb lunch

This is my preferred option, since it’s really easy.  Intermittent fasting has some positive hormonal benefits like increased testosterone and growth hormone production, and higher insulin sensitivity.  Eating a low-carb, high-protein breakfast has been shown to lead to more energy, better mental function, and reduced calorie consumption throughout the day.  So I just combine the two.

It’s simple: instead of breakfast, just have coffee or tea, along with water, to keep you alert and kill your hunger.  After a few days, you’ll find it very easy to not eat until lunch.  Then at lung, you eat something high in protein and carb-free, like a chicken salad or bacon and eggs.  Then for the rest of the day, you let yourself eat as normal- the work is already done.

If you’ve been thinking of trying the HcG Diet, forget about it and try one of those four options instead- and while you’re at it, score a big win by replacing your most frequently-consumed snack foods with healthier options.  If you’ve followed the HcG Diet or any of the alternative diets I listed, please share your experiences in the comments below.  And if you want to see updates like this, subscribe to the free newsletter using the form near the top of the page.