The Zone Diet. South Beach. A box of P90X DVDs. A glance at my bookshelf would tell you that sensible diets and working out have always been my M.O. The Zone helped me drop those pesky five pounds before my wedding, South Beach got me back into my pre-pregnancy clothes, and I belong to both a gym and the cult of Tony Horton. But three kids, a sedentary desk job, and too many lunches in front of my computer had combined to leave me cranky and stagnating at about 10 to 12 pounds overweight. It all came to a head when I stupidly tried on a bathing suit. At night. In the harsh lighting of a Target dressing room. Vacation was approaching, and then my 20-year high-school reunion. I had to do something different, and quickly. Yes, vanity was spurring me to action, but I’d long felt a nagging worry that I was on an irreversible creep toward obesity.
Still, I didn’t think a fad diet was the way to go. Certainly not one I learned about on the Internet, like the hCG diet. Here’s how it is supposed to work: You take human chorionic gonadotropin—which occurs naturally in the placenta of pregnant women—once a day for three to six weeks, depending on how much weight you want to lose. The hCG burns your “abnormal” (read: extra) fat stores, allowing you to eat 500 calories a day without feeling hungry, all while losing about a pound a day. Five hundred calories? On the crazy scale, this seemed only mildly more sane than the tapeworm diet.
Those Internet ads that say you can “lose a pound a day with one simple trick”? The hCG diet is one that you’ll find when you click on those. And there is a trick to succeeding on the diet: Don’t follow the plans on the Internet, which usually involve ordering homeopathic drops. The FDA considers the drops to be “fraudulent and illegal,” though the agency rarely does anything about it. Instead, find a doctor to prescribe injections. They are considered off-label use for weight loss, but when I found out that my OB-GYN—the same woman who once changed her vacation plans to deliver one of my kids—was offering the diet through her practice, I figured it was safe enough to consider. I attended an information session, learned the pros and the cons, and thought about it. And then I mentally deducted all the money from my imaginary iPad fund (It cost me $450, which isn’t cheap, but then, neither is Nutrisystem), and went for it.
The diet is based on a protocol established by Dr. A.T.W. Simeons, a British physician working at a hospital in Rome, in the 1950s. He had discovered, accidentally, that patients who were treated with hCG would lose their appetite and burn fat (changing their figure) even if they didn’t lose weight. It piqued his interest, and he began treating obese patients with hCG. Over the years, through trial and error, he came up with the protocol that I followed: three weeks of injections and a very low-calorie diet, followed by three weeks of “stabilization”: higher calories, but no sugar or starch.
Like many diet plans, the efficacy of the diet is disputed. The FDA requires that prescriptions carry a warning that the drug “has not been shown to increase weight loss, to cause a more ‘attractive’ distribution of fat or to ‘decrease hunger and discomfort,’ ” as the New York Times reported in March. The few studies done on the diet seem to indicate that placebos work just as well as injections. (Maybe, but if I had to eat 500 calories a day without some kind of assistance, I’d be gnawing on the furniture by the end of Day 2.)
I understand the skepticism. The diet is full of oddities that Dr. Simeons discovered in his research. If you cheat or gain weight while taking the injections, you’re supposed to eat nothing but apples the next day. You have a long list of vegetables you can choose from, but you can’t mix them (no tomatoes in your salad, for example). You’re not supposed to use lotions or creams because the hCG will burn that up instead of the fat in your body—this can stall your weight loss
Still, I wondered how long it was safe to eat so little, even if I was getting the energy I needed from the fat that was being burned by the hCG. My doctor, Amy Brenner, put me at ease. “Eventually, you would go into starvation mode, and your metabolism would slow down,” but not during the three to six weeks one does the diet.
I didn’t end up chewing on my divan, and in fact I rarely felt hungry. Still not easy to spend three weeks eating from an extremely short list of foods. My breakfast every day was an apple; lunch was lean protein and a vegetable; strawberries or an apple or orange for a snack; and more lean protein and veggies for dinner. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but you try eating four ounces of spinach in one sitting. It fills up a large mixing bowl!
For three weeks after taking the injections I increased my calorie intake back to 1,500 to 1,800 calories but still avoided sugars, starches, and alcohol (hey, at least you’re allowed coffee). By the time I completed the injections and three-week stabilization phase, I had lost 18 pounds. I had lost two inches off each arm, two inches of my waist, and almost three inches off each thigh. I even lost an inch off my neck, which I never considered necessary or possible.
Still, the obvious question remains: Does the weight stay off? More and more research around dieting and nutrition is showing that it’s hard if not impossible to keep weight off. The fact that I have multiple diet books in my collection is a testament to that difficulty. It can be discouraging. And if you start eating unhealthfully on a regular basis, sure, it’s going to come back. But, while it’s still early, I have cause to be optimistic that I’ll keep my new figure.
In the name of research, I subjected myself to a strenuous test. In July, I spent five days drinking mojitos and daiquiris and eating chips and guacamole on a Mexican vacation. I gained back a few pounds. But upon returning home, I stuck to lean proteins and veggies for a week and the extra pounds disappeared. And that’s how it’s been in the weeks since. I will never eat perfectly. But if I splurge occasionally, I can get back to where I was.
Happily, the changes haven’t just been physical. When I started the diet, I wanted my old body back. I didn’t want to buy mom jeans. But a funny thing happened as I lost weight: I realized how much mental energy I had been wasting. I would constantly compare my overweight self to women at the gym, at the mall, at the park. It was a kind of narcissistic masochism: “My butt’s not that big, is it?” “Wow, her arms are skinny.” Once I had regained my self-confidence, this self-destructive behavior disappeared. It might have been at a moment of emotional weakness that I decided to do something mildly crazy to lose weight. But I’ve never felt so sane.
Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Engber has written extensively on obesity, discrimination against overweight people, and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. William Saletan has written about genetics and obesity and soda taxes.