Meg Farris / Medical Reporter
NEW ORLEANS -- It's a diet people swear changes their lives. Many say it has to be good since it dates back 60 years. And there are even doctors who have gone on national TV saying patients have had success.
So is the hCG hormone diet safe, and does it work?
Lisa and Marvin Ripp love the outdoors near their home in Covington, Whether it's playing with their dogs and cats or on the water. But last year Lisa hurt her knee skiing and needed surgeries. Unable to be active, she gained 50 to 60 pounds.
"Quality of life, not feeling well, just feeling yucky, clothes not fitting and all that kind of thing," Lisa said about the reasons she wanted to lose weight.
So like many across the U.S., Lisa, 42, turned to a diet product that is exploding on the internet, in clinics and in stores. The hCG diet.
"You feel like a million bucks. After about four or five days of being on it, didn't feel hungry and I lost 36 pounds in 40 days," she said.
Marvin, 49, had hit 260 pounds. On his own he lost 50 pounds, but he wanted to shed those last, hard-to-lose 10 pounds. And he wanted to be supportive of his wife's weight loss program. So he went on the hCG diet as well.
He quickly lost 23 pounds and easily got down to 187 pounds.
"I went on the diet just to support my wife, just so, you know, keep her on track and do everything," he said. "Within two weeks, I had lost that stubborn 10 or 15 pounds. I lost so much that my family was telling me don't lose anymore weight. So I was only on it for 21 days."
The Ripps are not alone. Many answered our Facebook question about hCG and swear by its rapid weight loss. It's a semi-starvation diet of only 500 calories a day. Putting the drops under the tongue, they say, keep away cravings and hunger.
Sellers of hCG claim from 1950s studies, the hormone takes another 1500 to 4000 calories a day from your fat stores, never burning lean muscle.
But users also wrote on Facebook about bad side effects.
We had experts comb through the current, tested and published science, not the Internet testimonials, for real answers.
"This is the only verified and certified use of it is to assist in ovulation. It's the hormone in pregnancy that causes women to get very nauseated during the first 10 weeks," said Dr. Richard Dickey, who is a reproductive endocrinologist and the founder and director of the Fertility Institute of New Orleans and clinical professor and head of section of reproductive medicine at LSU Health Sciences Center.
Dr. Dickey uses the hCG hormone (Human Chronioic Gonadotropin hormone) to help couples struggling to have a baby. It's made in the placenta to sustain pregnancy. He gets it by prescription for injections that clearly state on the package insert that there is no benefit for weight loss.
He said people selling it for weight loss have driven the price way up for his patients, caused government regulations that make it harder to get for couples in need, and even caused temporary shortages.
"It's a fertility treatment exclusively. Studies, large government study, was done a number of years ago, showed absolutely no benefit in weight loss," said Dr. Dickey.
"The reason why you're losing weight is because you're starving. And so this is a big no. This is not safe. It's not effective over the long term. It does not burn fat on your body and spare muscle like the studies (from the 50s) state. They have (current) studies that have shown that is not true. It's burns fat. It burns muscle. It uses water. It's just like any other very, very low calorie diet," said Dr. Melinda Southern, the section director, professor of research, and clinical exercise physiologist at LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health.
"There's no studies to say that this helped in weight loss management. In fact, the FDA came out to specifically discount its use and say not only is it illegal in many states, it has absolutely no bonafide use for weight loss," said Dr. Kim Edward LeBlanc, the head of the Department of Family Medicine and Director of Rural Education in the School of Medicine at LSU Health Sciences Center.
In studies, people on the low-calorie diet who got fake injections lost the same amount of weight as those on the real hormone injections.
Doctors say the starvation diet is causing the weight loss of not only fat, but good, lean, solid muscle as well. And that will cause your body to store fat when you start eating normally again, causing rapid weight gain.
Losing muscle causes your metabolism to slow down, as does starving your body. Doctors also say the power of suggestion or the placebo effect, as well as the body slowing down metabolism to save energy, is the reason people don't have cravings or hunger.
Doctors warn it is a violation of the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners to prescribe or inject or use hCG under the tongue on patients for weight loss. Products sold in stores use hCG on the label as a marketing tool, but it's really hormone-free with a different active ingredient such as African Mango. While you can get the hormone on the Internet, the FDA says that's illegal and it can be contaminated coming from countries overseas.
"It is not a simple chemical and it can be contaminated, and if you do not purchase this from a reliable source, it can be very dangerous and can lead to some very bad diseases," added Dr. Sothern.
Used incorrectly, it can have bad side effects on men's testicles and women's ovaries, even growing men's breasts and a higher risk of prostate cancer. It is also a danger in heart patients possibly causing fluid retention.
While some believe cardiologist and TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz has endorsed the hormone, that is not accurate. Dr. Oz has warned people not to buy hCG online or in stores and not to eat fewer than 1200 calories a day. And he says hCG and low calories diets should only be used under doctor supervision. He also wants to see more research on it.
Mackie Shilstone, fitness and diet expert of East Jefferson General Hospital, has helped people and elite athletes lose only fat and gain functional muscle. He agrees with Dr. Oz.
"I think if you're going to go on 500 calories diet, you have to be supervised by a dietician in conjunction with your doctor," he said.
Still, the Ripps embrace the change hCG has made in their lives.
"I'm not claiming to be a doctor. I just know that it really worked. It really worked," said Lisa.
In 2009, the American Society of Bariatric Physicians issued a position statement on the use of hCG in the treatment of obesity concluding that numerous clinical trials have shown hCG to be ineffectual in producing weight loss and recommending that hCG not be used in the treatment of this condition.
The American Medical Association, the College of OB-GYN's and the Obesity Society have all formally come out against the hCG diet.