The hCG diet has touched off a fiery debate. Devotees say it's the key to fast weight loss; medical experts contend it could be dangerous because it limits dieters to 500 calories a day, less than a third of the amount recommended by the government for both men and women. "Restricting your intake to 500 calories a day isn't healthy," says Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. The other part of the diet is daily drops or injections of the pregnancy hormone hCG, which supposedly accelerates weight loss by suppressing appetite and "blasting" fat. Nutrition specialists are skeptical. They question whether the hCG hormone shuts down hunger pangs or whether weight loss is simply the result of an extremely restrictive diet. "If you don't eat, you'll lose weight," says Cohen, "but it's not a practical, sustainable, or safe method." The usual menu is the one outlined in 1954 by the diet's creator, A.T.W. Simeons, in Pounds and Inches: A New Approach to Obesity. Here's a peek at what breakfast, lunch, and dinner look like on the hCG diet.
No solid food before lunch. "Breakfast" is optional. It consists of a cup of black coffee or tea—any size. Sugar is off-limits, but calorie-free sweeteners like saccharin or Stevia are OK. The hCG menu allows one tablespoon of milk over a 24-hour period, so dieters can blow the daily allotment and mix it into their morning coffee.
Lunch and dinner: the meat
The bulk of calories come from lunch and dinner—both meals call for small amounts of veggies and carbs and 3.5 ounces of lean, fat-free protein. (At 9 calories per gram, fat is calorie-dense, so portions would be even smaller if fat was permitted on a 500-calorie diet.) Veal, non-marbled beef, chicken breast, fresh white-fleshed fish, lobster, crab, and shrimp are all fine; fatty choices like salmon, eel, tuna, herring, and dried or pickled fish are off-limits. Dieters are instructed to weigh the food while it's raw, remove all visible fat, and boil or grill it. Every so often meat can be replaced with an egg or a serving of low-fat cottage cheese.
One low-calorie vegetable is allowed with both lunch and dinner. Choices include spinach, chard, chicory, beet greens, tomatoes, celery, fennel, onions, red radishes, cucumbers, asparagus, and cabbage. Most of the veggies are packed with vitamins and other nutrients, which is particularly important on such a restrictive diet. Spinach, for example, is rich in fiber, vitamins A and C, and iron, and even contains some protein. Veggies mustn't be topped with oil, butter, or sauce.
HCG dieters can have one breadstick or one piece of Melba toast with lunch and dinner. Both choices make the list because they don't contain fat, sodium, or cholesterol and are low in calories—12 in a piece of Melba toast, for example. Dieters also get an apple, an orange, a handful of strawberries, or half a grapefruit with each 250-calorie meal. No tinkering with portion sizes; it's not OK to have two small apples instead of one of normal siz
Tea, coffee, and water (tap or mineral) only. There's no limit on how much of these dieters can drink, and Simeons suggests at least 2 liters a day. Alcohol is outlawed. The "smallest error" in following these rules can have "disastrous" weight-loss results, Simeons warned in Pounds and Inches.
Dieters can shower their meals with salt, pepper, vinegar, mustard powder, garlic, sweet basil, parsley, thyme, or marjoram. But following the plan means steering clear of oil, butter, and any type of dressing. Each day, hCG dieters can also use the juice of one lemon.
What's off limits
HCG dieters must stick to menu items outlined in Simeons' Pounds and Inches. Everything else is banned. There's no room for the occasional cookie, morsel of chocolate, plate of pasta, or bagel (with or without cream cheese). Others might seem OK but aren't. Simeons believed that Pimiento peppers, okra, artichokes, and pears had qualities that interfered with weight and fat loss.