The Controversial Diet that Really Works

The science is sketchy, the FDA won't approve it, and it costs a fortune. But it seems to be working. What you should know about the HCG diet.

Last year I tried a controversial diet that involves extreme calorie restriction and needles. And you know what? It wasn't that hard to pull off. And I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

As the creative director of a fashion magazine in London, my life was frantic. While I tried to balance family and a stressful job that demanded heavy travel, my health had become last on my list of priorities. I was exhausted. The final straw came after a long flight from London to L.A. After landing, I experienced chest pains and was rushed to the hospital. Would I die for fashion? It turned out not to be a heart attack, but pleurisy (a type of lung inflammation—I'd had a history of asthma). Still, I felt my unforgiving lifestyle was to blame. I was commuting to California quite a bit, and I yearned for the relatively slower pace I found to be a part of life there. A year later, my family and I decided to move across the Atlantic and settle in to a new life on the West Coast.

Once we got here, I had some room to self-evaluate. Am I alone in having tried and failed to eat healthy while working insanely long hours and then coming home to tuck the kids into bed? My reliance on Coca-Cola—about three cans a day—was growing. My weight gain began to bother me.

Soon after I arrived in L.A., a hairdresser friend turned up at a shoot I was working on looking slim and incredible. Naturally, the women on the set pounced. "What's your secret?" we demanded. She revealed that she'd tried the HCG diet, which entailed eating no more than 500 calories per day and giving herself shots of human chorionic gonadotropin hormone once a day. We gasped. "It changed the way I eat forever!" she enthused, and raved about how the pounds rolled off. She was still curvy in all the right places and lacked that gaunt look some dieters get. Most noticeably, her waist looked tiny, like mine did before I had kids. She handed me a phone number.

I began to do my research. As it turns out, HCG levels are highest in pregnant women and can be extracted from their urine or created synthetically. The central idea behind the diet seems to be that the hormone forces the body to mobilize fat and use it for energy, as it would during pregnancy in order to nourish the fetus. This "trick" makes you feel sustained, even if you're not eating much. Even better, the HCG combined with caloric restriction apparently "resets" your metabolism.

The HCG diet was published in book form in 2007 by Kevin Trudeau as The Weight Loss Cure They Don't Want You to Know About, a reference to its lack of FDA approval. But Trudeau's past—he spent two years in prison for fraud and has been fined numerous times as a result of complaints made by the Federal Trade Commission—has detracted from his credibility, to say the least. I also read negative press from dietitians, who claim that by eating so few calories, you'd lose weight regardless of HCG. I also heard that some men experienced side effects like altered testosterone levels. But to be honest, I didn't care. I just wanted to lose the weight, and I was willing to take my chances. Online, the positive testaments to HCG were endless. I was in.

The clinic was tucked inside a plain, women-only gym in Studio City. It had a no-frills spa atmosphere where you could get a massage, facial, or, in my case, a month's supply of hormone injections. The beauty consultant I met with was currently undergoing medical training, though she wasn't yet a registered nurse. Still, she seemed very knowledgeable and totally put me at ease.

She explained that I could do the diet for 21 days and, if I wanted to continue losing weight, up to 45 days. (After that, she said, the body becomes HCG immune.) Yes, I was apprehensive about the daily injections. But then she shocked me by handing me a needle and saying bluntly, "You have to do this yourself." She taught me to wipe down my skin with alcohol and coached me on inserting the needle into my thigh. It was scary and it hurt, but it wasn't unbearable. I would also need to inject vitamin B12 into my waistline three times a week in order to boost my energy. We reviewed the diet plan, and I paid $750. Apart from the weekly checkups, I was on my own.

When it came to eating, the rules sounded strict. No dairy, carbs, alcohol, or sugar. Yes to organic meats, vegetables, and fish—in small portions. Cutting out sugar was my biggest challenge. No more Coke. Instead, I became addicted to pints of hot water with lemon, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I was peeing more often, and for a week, I was hungry and tired. After that, something shifted: My energy levels soared, my skin was clearer, and the whites of my eyes were whiter. I felt fantastic.

Once a week I returned to the clinic, where they weighed me, took photo documentation, and, most importantly, refreshed my HCG supply. I was losing about a pound per day, with plateaus here and there. My B12 injections were starting to hurt a bit more as there was less fat to cushion the needle. The diet was working so well that by day 21, I signed up to run the whole 45-day course. I handed over another $500.

In the end, I lost a total of 25 pounds, ending up at a weight I hadn't been in 10 years and even losing my post-pregnancy stomach. Suddenly, my wardrobe opened up to me. Long-forgotten pants fit perfectly. Most importantly, a year later, I haven't regained any of the weight. Was it crazy to try this weird diet without more formal medical supervision? Maybe. I would suggest that anyone with health issues or concerns about potential side effects consult a doctor first.

When I tell people how I lost the weight, initially they're shocked. Honestly, lots of people in L.A. are doing this diet, but it's not out in the open because it tends to get a wild reaction from people. I'll say this: I'm very sensible, certainly no fad dieter, and not someone who usually does impulsive things. But in this case I took a chance, and I'm glad I did.

Erin Flaherty

Erin Flaherty is a beauty journalist and consultant who has contributed to numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal and Domino, among many others. She is a board member of the Women's Global Empowerment Fund and especially passionate about worldwide beauty anthropology and women's issues. She lives in Woodstock, NY with her husband and dog.