Clinics Once Offered This Pregnancy Hormone for Weight Loss

Sam Westreich, PhD

The FDA said no, and the American Medical Association has a policy against it
“I’m so happy for you, honey! Now you can finally drop those last 30 pounds!”Photo byPhoto by Jonathan Borba on UnsplashonUnsplash

Pregnancy is a crazy time when it comes to changes in the body. Growing a whole new human is a massive undertaking, and there are waves of triggered hormones at various stages in order to cue up the right developments.

Researchers have studied those hormones, and then they naturally take the next step of asking: what else could those hormones do?

Some of those questions have paid off. Female birth control uses hormones to prevent pregnancy. Abortion pills also use a hormone-based approach.

But there have been some stranger attempted applications of human pregnancy-linked hormones, as well. And one hormone that’s seen plenty of use (and abuse) is human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG.

It’s used by bodybuilders as a counterpart to steroids. And, for a while, it was offered at weight loss clinics and on late-night infomercials… until it eventually landed some of its promoters in jail.

Today, let’s take a quick look at what HCG is, what it normally does, and what it may — or may not — do to the waistline of someone who isn’t carrying around a developing fetus.

What is human chorionic gonadotropin?

Human chorionic gonadotropin (gosh, what a mouthful; I’m going to call it HCG from here on) is a hormone that’s produced by cells that surround a growing embryo and eventually form the placenta.

In early pregnancy, it’s HCG that signals to the ovary that “hey, there’s a fetus here! Don’t run your monthly cleaning cycle!”. This encourages the corpus luteum (the remains of the follicle in the ovary that released the now-fertilized egg) to stick around and release progesterone. Progesterone, in turn, signals for the uterus to thicken and support the growing fetus.

In other words, the flow looks something like this:

  1. HCG is released by cells that will become the placenta.
  2. The HCG tells the ovary to make progesterone.
  3. The progesterone makes the uterus thicken and grow blood vessels.

Some pregnancy tests look for elevated HCG levels as an early detection method.

Interestingly, there’s a different hormone but with a very similar structure, called luteinizing hormone, that is produced by the pituitary gland in both men and women. Luteinizing hormone triggers ovulation and the production of estrogen precursors in women, and the release of testosterone from the testes in men.

(While we’re on the complex topic of estrogen and hormones, ever wondered about whether some foods give you too much estrogen?)

This leads to our first off-market use for GCH, by the way; it turns out that some people care a lot about encouraging the release of naturally produced testosterone.


When you take high levels of steroids, your body stops making its own testosterone. This causes problems when the steroids stop; the body won’t turn the testosterone production back on. Some bodybuilders take GCH along with steroids to keep their body’s natural testosterone production running (and also prevent their testicles from shrinking from lack of activity).

For this reason, a number of sports consider HCG to be an illegal substance, and test their athletes for it. Baseball, football, and MMA fighters have been banned when tests showed high HCG levels.

I hear you, I hear you. “All of this is interesting,” you say, “but how could HCG be linked to weight loss?”

To answer, we’re going back more than 70 years, to the 1950s.

The 1954 book that pushed HCG for weight loss

Back in 1954, a British endocrinologist (someone who studies hormones) named Albert T. W. Simeons published a book called Pounds and Inches, describing his studies on pregnant Indian women and overweight boys with pituitary problems. He treated both of these groups with HCG and observed weight loss. He concluded that HCG must help burn excess fat, in order to protect the developing fetus.

And he didn’t just publish the book. For more than 20 years, Simeons recommended low-dose daily HCG injections, along with a very low-calorie diet (500 calories or less, compared to the average recommendation from the FDA of 2,000 calories) for weight loss.

But was HCG actually doing anything?

Other researchers didn’t think so. By 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stepped in and insisted that Simeons include a disclaimer, stating that there was no conclusive evidence showing that HCG increased weight loss or that it helped decrease the hunger pangs associated with being on an extremely low-calorie diet.

This isn’t to say that people didn’t lose weight — but they almost certainly lost weight only because they were on an extremely low-calorie diet, not because of any effect of the HCG injections.

And the final nail in the coffin for HCG as a weight-loss aid came in 1995, when researchers from the Netherlands published a meta-analysis looking at all studies on weight-loss and HCG.

(A meta-analysis is a paper that looks at all available published literature on a subject, scoring each study on quality and results, attempting to provide an overall conclusion.)

The researchers found that:

  1. Most of the studies on HCG for weight loss were uncontrolled, meaning that the subjects receiving HCG weren’t compared to individuals receiving a placebo injection.
  2. The methodological scores for most studies were pretty low, indicating poor quality experiments (not enough individuals, too many people dropping out of the study, not enough description of the details of the intervention method, researchers weren’t blinded and knew which people received which treatment).
  3. Out of 24 studies, only 12 of them scored above 50/100 for methodology. Of those 12 studies, only one of them showed any benefit to HCG.

The conclusion of the meta-analysis is pretty stark:

We conclude that there is no scientific evidence that HCG is effective in the treatment of obesity; it does not bring about weight-loss of fat-redistribution, nor does it reduce hunger or induce a feeling of well-being.

That’s pretty damning.

And this would have been the end of HCG, but there’s an interesting footnote, when it had a resurgence… that eventually led to jail time.

Kevin Trudeau and the “HCG Diet”

Kevin Trudeau is, to put it plainly, a con man. He started work as a used-car salesman, and then soon afterwards was arrested for depositing worthless checks, impersonating a physician, and spent 2 years in jail in the early ’90s for credit card fraud.

But his encounter with HCG came later, in the 2000s. He began self-publishing a series of books with lots of health-related quackery; the first book, in 2004, was called Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, which is a pretty sketchy title.

A sequel, in 2007, called The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About (sensing a theme with these titles?) focused on HCG. That book is still available for sale on Amazon (I’m not going to link it), with a surprising 3.5 star rating. Many of the top reviews include long rants about how the government is out to get you, stealing your money, and intentionally making its citizens sick. (“The hCG diet as created my [sic] dr. simeons was proven to be the most effective weight loss treatment, and was supressed [sic] by the government, and he is revealing it and promoting it”).

Despite claiming that the diet was “easy to follow,” the book pretty literally adapted Dr. Simeon’s protocol from the 1960s, including daily injections of HCG. This is made more challenging by the fact that HCG is only given out with a prescription and is not readily available over-the-counter.

Trudeau was already in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) from 2004. He’d made claims that a calcium supplement could cure serious diseases, including cancer. In response, Trudeau was banned from using infomercials to sell any product, service, or program.

The HCG diet? Against that ban. And a year later, in 2008, Trudeau was forced to pay a penalty of more than $37 million, the amount paid by consumers who watched the infomercials.

Trudeau didn’t immediately go to jail, but in 2014, when he continued to flout bans and refused to pay the fines levied against him, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In summary: HCG is vital for pregnancy, but won’t help you shed non-baby-reated pounds

Human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG, is a vital hormone in women during early pregnancy; without it, the cascade isn’t kicked off to support the growth in the uterus needed to feed the fetus.

But we’ve also found other uses for HCG beyond what biology originally evolved; it closely mimics luteinizing hormone (LH), and is thus used by some bodybuilders or athletes who are willing to cheat with steroids to obtain their physique or prowess. HCG helps to stop the body from ceasing testosterone production, as it does when flooded with anabolic steroids.

HCG was even explored for weight loss, although that link has been thoroughly disproven. Besides, are you really going to inject daily hormones for the rest of your life to maintain your weight? Seems like a lot of painful effort!


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A microbiome scientist working at a tech startup in Silicon Valley, Sam Westreich provides insights into science and technology, exploring the strangest areas of biology, science, and biotechnology.

Mountain View, CA

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