The promise of quick weight loss is luring hordes of dieters to South Florida clinics, which are prescribing a pregnancy hormone that makes people lose their appetites.
Yet some medical researchers and dieticians warn that the diet is dangerous because it simulates starvation and has potentially serious side effects such as blood clots, depression and headaches.
Patients on the diet have their hunger suppressed by daily injections of hCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin, and can eat as little as 500 calories a day. They can begin seeing dramatic results immediately.
"It sounded too good to be true," said Andres Suarez, of Parkland, of the claims he was hearing before he chose the diet. He weighed 227 pounds at Thanksgiving and now weighs 183 pounds.
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Suarez, 32, a commodities trader and father of two, learned to give himself a daily hCG injection in his abdomen. He was allowed to eat about 800 calories a day — "lots of salads," as he described it — and said he didn't feel hungry.
He lost 24 pounds in a month and said he continues to lose weight by maintaining a similar meal plan without the injections.
"I'm more conscious of what I eat now," Suarez said. "I eat two slices of pizza instead of the whole pie, or three or four chicken wings instead of 12. Now I know what I want to put it in my mouth."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved hCG, produced by the placenta during pregnancy, only as a fertility treatment for men and women, but doctors are permitted to prescribe it for other purposes.
The FDA in January warned that homeopathic hCG supplements, often sold as drops or lozenges online or at chain nutrition centers, are illegal and fraudulent.
Several studies have shown hCG is no better than a placebo when given to patients to foster weight loss. The FDA requires hCG packaging to display a warning that there is no evidence that it speeds weight loss, improves distribution of fat or suppresses hunger.
"It's an unproven, unscientific method," said Susan Burke March, a licensed dietitian and spokeswoman for the Florida Dietetic Association. "You can't get adequate nutrition on 500 calories a day. People are looking for a magic pill, and this is the latest one."
Dr. Sasson Moulavi, medical director of Smart For Life Weight Management Centers, based in Boca Raton, said hCG patients began deluging his offices last year and demand has been steady ever since, although he could not estimate how many hCG patients he has seen. He charges $350 for a 28-day regimen.
"I don't know why it works, but it does," Moulavi said. "It seems to protect muscle loss. We're doing a study so we can put this to rest."
Moulavi prescribes 800 calories a day, he said, because 500 is insufficient for anyone to get enough protein. Patients can eat foods such as chicken, fish, egg whites and vegetables. Fruit, bread, sweets and alcohol are forbidden.
Working with Moulavi, 5-foot-7 Kathleen Loehrig said her weight fell from 156 to 136. She is undergoing a second series of shots, working toward her goal weight of 130. The single mother of two, who lives west of Boynton Beach, said she has felt no side effects.
"The injections attack the bad fat," said Loehrig, 47, whose business cleans and repairs swimming pools. "In a week, my butt was gone."