Signals Blog

Dietpillsmall by Paul Krzyzanowski

Many people have a few pounds they’d like to get rid of and over the years numerous diets and supplements have hit the market to help those with little time or inclination to develop their own weight management plan. One of the more controversial diet fads resurfaced in a dramatic way last year with an entire episode of the Dr. Oz show dedicated to the “hCG Diet”. It’s an old diet, but with a new marketing twist: stem cells.

The hCG (human Chorionic Gonadotropin) Diet plan usually involves injections of hCG combined with severe caloric restriction of 500 calories per day for the first several days rising to 1500 calorie per day shortly after. Homeopathic “hCG drops” are also available, but the concentration of hCG in them is negligible. In any case, hCG is supposed to help dieters tolerate the initial hunger pangs and is also claimed to help trigger the switch to a fat-burning metabolism.

Most fad diet plans claim that their method or supplements encourage the body to switch to a fat-burning metabolism, which does indeed exist, but only after the body’s carbohydrate supply is exhausted. Most methods accomplish this by severely limiting carbohydrate intake or by simply suppressing appetite.

The lack of scientific evidence to support the use of hCG in a diet plan was well established even in 1995. hCG was deemed ineffective for weight loss purposes and there wasn’t sufficient evidence to claim the hCG was an appetite suppressant. In fact, 12 out of 14 studies showed that hCG weight loss was no better than using a placebo or through diet alone.

But now, nearly two decades later, the marketers have a new vocabulary to work with. Ideas of stem cells have been adopted into the weight loss marketing materials in yet another variation on the “stem cell” branding theme. One site claims to boost their hCG diet results with sound vibration therapy to stimulate stem cells to heal injuries in the body. Another concept is the mobilization of stem cells from bone marrow to help build fat-burning muscle — by taking the right dietary supplements, of course. None of the web sites I found could substantiate these claims with studies.

Though it’s tempting to conclude that using hCG isn’t really harmful, what makes tinkering with hCG seem dangerous to me is the evidence that it wields powerful effects over cell growth, cancer cell biology, and in some cases controls certain types of stem cells.

As of 2010, it’s known that hCG is elevated in many types of tumours, and that the application of hCG to bladder cancer cells increases their growth, suggesting that cancer cells use it as a stimulation factor. Paradoxically, a few studies cited in this same review suggested that hCG can decrease proliferation of breast cancer cells, which was reaffirmed in 2009, when another study showed that using recombinant hCG on a human breast cell line appeared to induce cell differentiation. It’s possible that hCG has both functions depending on where it’s located; if it’s in the wrong tissue type it may lead to unwanted consequences.

For dieting purposes, perhaps the most damning evidence against the use of hCG for weight loss comes from a 2007 study that showed that hCG significantly increases the ability of preadipocytes (a type of fat stem cell) to grow and produce more adipocytes. It seems that hCG may actually have a role in increasing the number of fat-storing cells!

In the end, the hCG diet plan is one that I would gladly avoid, especially if delivered via a series of injections. However I did find one hCG vendor that was nearly honest, claiming that: “homeopathic HCG drops have proven to be just as effective at achieving quick and lasting weight loss as the costly injections”.

I’ll take one Placebo Effect, please!

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Paul Krzyzanowski

Paul is a computational biologist and writer living in Toronto. He's been a contributor to Signals for three years, writing articles for the general public about how biotechnology and biomedical research can be used to solve pressing medical problems. Alongside Paul's experience in computational biology,
 bioinformatics, and molecular genetics, he's interested in how academic research develops into real world, commercial technology, and what's needed for the Canadian biotech industry needs to grow. Paul is currently a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. Prior to joining the OICR, he worked at the Ottawa Hospital Research 
Institute and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa, specializing in computational biology. And finally, Paul earned an H.B.Sc. from the University of Toronto a long time ago. Paul's blog can be read at