The Zone Diet. South Beach. A box of P90X DVDs. A glance at my bookshelf would tell you that sensible diets and working out have always been my M.O. The Zone helped me drop those pesky five pounds before my wedding, South Beach got me back into my pre-pregnancy clothes, and I belong to both a gym and the cult of Tony Horton. But three kids, a sedentary desk job, and too many lunches in front of my computer had combined to leave me cranky and stagnating at about 10 to 12 pounds overweight. It all came to a head when I stupidly tried on a bathing suit. At night. In the harsh lighting of a Target dressing room. Vacation was approaching, and then my 20-year high-school reunion. I had to do something different, and quickly. Yes, vanity was spurring me to action, but I’d long felt a nagging worry that I was on an irreversible creep toward obesity.
Still, I didn’t think a fad diet was the way to go. Certainly not one I learned about on the Internet, like the hCG diet. Here’s how it is supposed to work: You take human chorionic gonadotropin—which occurs naturally in the placenta of pregnant women—once a day for three to six weeks, depending on how much weight you want to lose. The hCG burns your “abnormal” (read: extra) fat stores, allowing you to eat 500 calories a day without feeling hungry, all while losing about a pound a day. Five hundred calories? On the crazy scale, this seemed only mildly more sane than the tapeworm diet.
Those Internet ads that say you can “lose a pound a day with one simple trick”? The hCG diet is one that you’ll find when you click on those. And there is a trick to succeeding on the diet: Don’t follow the plans on the Internet, which usually involve ordering homeopathic drops. The FDA considers the drops to be “fraudulent and illegal,” though the agency rarely does anything about it. Instead, find a doctor to prescribe injections. They are considered off-label use for weight loss, but when I found out that my OB-GYN—the same woman who once changed her vacation plans to deliver one of my kids—was offering the diet through her practice, I figured it was safe enough to consider. I attended an information session, learned the pros and the cons, and thought about it. And then I mentally deducted all the money from my imaginary iPad fund (It cost me $450, which isn’t cheap, but then, neither is Nutrisystem), and went for it.
The diet is based on a protocol established by Dr. A.T.W. Simeons, a British physician working at a hospital in Rome, in the 1950s. He had discovered, accidentally, that patients who were treated with hCG would lose their appetite and burn fat (changing their figure) even if they didn’t lose weight. It piqued his interest, and he began treating obese patients with hCG. Over the years, through trial and error, he came up with the protocol that I followed: three weeks of injections and a very low-calorie diet, followed by three weeks of “stabilization”: higher calories, but no sugar or starch.
Like many diet plans, the efficacy of the diet is disputed. The FDA requires that prescriptions carry a warning that the drug “has not been shown to increase weight loss, to cause a more ‘attractive’ distribution of fat or to ‘decrease hunger and discomfort,’ ” as the New York Times reported in March. The few studies done on the diet seem to indicate that placebos work just as well as injections. (Maybe, but if I had to eat 500 calories a day without some kind of assistance, I’d be gnawing on the furniture by the end of Day 2.)
I understand the skepticism. The diet is full of oddities that Dr. Simeons discovered in his research. If you cheat or gain weight while taking the injections, you’re supposed to eat nothing but apples the next day. You have a long list of vegetables you can choose from, but you can’t mix them (no tomatoes in your salad, for example). You’re not supposed to use lotions or creams because the hCG will burn that up instead of the fat in your body—this can stall your weight loss