Obesity is a global problem. Unfortunately, SA has not been spared this scourge, and according to the national department of health, about 30% of SA men and a whopping 68% of SA women are overweight. Apart from all the complex causes of obesity, the problem is compounded by the fact that we do not have effective treatments for obesity.
Even drugs that have been approved to treat obesity are only modestly effective, with average weight loss of only 35kg, and they often have horrible side effects. This creates a perfect storm: many people desperate for a solution to their weight struggles, and many willing to exploit this desperation through quackery. One such treatment that is being advertised by weight-loss clinics and spas is hCG (human chorionic gonadotrophin, also known as the pregnancy hormone).
The idea of hCG as a weight-loss treatment originated from the work of Dr Albert Simeons, first described in the medical journal Lancet in 1954, and later in his book Pounds and Inches published in the same year. He recommended daily low-dose hCG injections in combination with a very low calorie diet (VLCD) as a cure for obesity.
Today, the hCG diet, also called the Simeons method or the lipolytic/fat-burning diet, is still being marketed as a route to fantastic weight loss. Advertisements include the promise of extreme weight loss (sometimes up to 1kg a day!), body reshaping to specifically burn abnormal fat such as the tummy roll, appetite suppression and a general feeling of wellbeing and self-confidence. The hCG diet is also endorsed by celebrity doctors.
Companies market a medical weight loss programme that includes a VLCD diet plan, supplements, medical supervision and personal support, along with vaguely labelled injections that upon closer enquiry turn out to be hCG injections. On other sites, one can buy hCG injections and drops, apparently without prescription, along with instructions for the VLCD diet. Products containing hCG can also be ordered on general online shopping platforms.
In one particularly egregious example, a qualified medical doctor with aesthetic medical practices in Johannesburg advertises the Simeons protocol and homeopathic hCG products which, by the definition of how homeopathic products are prepared, cannot contain any active hCG. They also have numerous false claims on their website, including that hCG is present in every human tissue, including males and non-pregnant women as well as pregnant women.
This is simply not true.
The hCG hormone is only produced by cells of a growing embryo during pregnancy, or by hCG-producing tumours, and therefore we do not normally have hCG in our bodies.
It is important to remember that hCG, like all other hormones, has considerable impact on how our bodies function. In women, hCG injections can stimulate ovulation and they form a routine part of fertility treatments. The hormone is also the culprit behind morning sickness during pregnancy.
In men, hCG injections stimulate the production of the male sex hormone testosterone, and as a result, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has listed hCG as a banned substance in male athletes. Even more worrying, hCG variants present in crude hCG preparations can fuel the growth and spread of cancers.