I recently completed the HCG diet. For those not familiar with it, dieters take sublingual drops three times a day (or there are shots you can do at a clinic) and adhere to a very low calorie diet (500 cals a day). The drops are made from a chemical found in women only during pregnancy which is why a woman who is pregnant can endure bouts of starvation (e.g. in a third world country) without damaging the fetus (eventually, starvation gets the fetus, too, but only if prolonged). The HCG in a woman’s body directs nutrition to the fetus first, even taking that nutrition from stored fat in the mother’s body.
First I should clarify that I’m not obese. The diet is usually for those are are obese, and the minimum amount you have to need to lose is 15 pounds. I just barely qualified on that basis after gaining some unwanted weight in my move around the world. For practical reasons, as a tall woman living in Asia, just going out and buying a new career wardrobe wasn’t a great option. Asian retail workers, most of whom wear the US equivalent of a child’s size 14, feel free to comment on my personhood in unflattering ways, and most clothing here doesn’t have a “tall” option. Losing weight the traditional way wasn’t working for me because there are so few fat free or low fat foods here, and with my travel schedule it was difficult to know the calories in things or to have regular access to a scale or to control the times of day I eat. So I chose a three week period (the diet is 21 days minimum) during which I would not travel or go to any work dinners to do the diet.
Many of our friends in our Arizona ward successfully lost 15-30 or even more pounds on the HCG diet. Among them was a urologist friend who lost a noticeable amount of weight and kept it off. Our ward lost hundreds of pounds collectively. Every week people were coming in looking slim and trim. My husband also successfully did the HCG diet with some of his work colleagues and lost over 20 pounds in less than a month. So I knew this diet was fast and effective.
My colleagues expressed strong opinions about the diet. There were some who felt I didn’t need to lose weight, a flattering idea, but I always suspect peers just want to lower the social bar when they encourage you to help yourself to more parmesan truffle fries. Others questioned the safety of the drops – wouldn’t it have side effects? Another friend warned I should just do the diet by itself but not take the drops, a valid suggestion, but I was concerned about plateauing (the body can go into starvation mode and quit losing weight), being too hungry (which truly was a benefit of the drops – I didn’t feel hungry), and burning muscle vs. fat (ketone strips can be used to test your urine to see if you are burning fat; while they aren’t available here, my husband used them when he did the diet the first time, and the ketones confirmed the diet’s claims). The other concern was “you’ll just put it right back on.” Thanks for the vote of confidence! I suppose if they are right, then I’m no worse off than I was before.
I went online and read review after review to hear what the negative side effects were and also what doctors were saying. A Mayo Clinic site summed it up like this: “Dream on, fatty. It’s not safe, and it doesn’t work. There is no easy fix for the fat suit you’ve eaten your way into. It will take you years to lose weight and keep it off if you don’t die of diabetes before then.” By contrast, the reviews by those who actually did the diet talked about how quick and easy it had been. A few reported some side effects. Some couldn’t control their hunger and broke the diet. But most of them completed the diet and loved their results.
The burning question, one that I still wonder even after successfully completing the diet is whether the drops are a placebo. One study showed that the same results were achieved using placebo drops and the 500 calorie diet; a different study done later disagreed with those findings and measured a broader range of criteria such as mood and sleep which both affect the ability to complete a diet. Obviously, the 500 calories are where the weight loss is coming from. If I didn’t do the HCG diet, that’s what I would have had to do anyway, just on my own. But do the drops make it more effective, less harmful (fat reduction vs. muscle), and well, just plain easier? Perhaps.
I can’t help but draw a parallel between the diet and church:
- A lot of the requirements are common to many diets. Obviously eating less, drinking lots of water, not eating late at night, cutting out sugars and starches (entirely during HCG – ouch), and changing your eating habits to be healthier are common to nearly all diets. All diets benefit people by changing habits that got bad results into habits that will get better results. Or as we’ve heard at General Conference, making bad men (or habits) good and good men (or habits) better! So do all churches, or no one would join them. If it’s not an upgrade in your life, you would not convert.
- Oddly specific restrictions are often not explained, yet lend credence to its claims through their uniqueness. The daily diet includes: 2 fruits, 2 vegetables, 2 meats. But only specific fruits, vegetables and meats are allowed, sometimes despite the fact that some prohibited fruits have lower sugar or calories; there is also no mixing of vegetables allowed (different protocols vary slightly – just like different wards do). You cannot repeat a food in the same day. Lotions are prohibited as are make up products containing oils (even the appearance of evil, or in this case fat?) You are strictly warned that you might gain weight (the horror!) if you deviate one iota from the protocol. Sounds quite a bit like the Word of Wisdom, and also some other prohibitions we have as Mormons (R-rated movies, garments, modesty, etc.). Why can’t we drink tea, for example? Nobody knows. It’s not like tea drinkers become raging tea-aholics or croak at 40 (in fact, inhabitants of Okinawa drink loads of tea and are the longest living people on the planet). So, following both requires an act of faith and for some, a clutching fear about the consequences of lost control.
- Regular check-ins create commitment and accountability. While we had to do the protocol (HCG likes to say “protocol” which sounds scientific rather than “diet” which just sounds depressing) on our own, most go to a clinic for regular checks of their vitals and progress. The church also has a lot of regular check-ins, such as temple recommend interviews and the involvement of being asked to serve in callings. In both cases, people are all up in your business, which makes you more accountable to the community or to authorities like the bishop (church) or nurse (diet). Personally, I think a disappointed nurse interrogating you Gestapo-like about your dieting transgressions would be more intimidating.
- The price is high, so you don’t want to cheat. Doing the diet at a clinic often costs hundreds of dollars. We did the homeopathic version because we don’t live in the US which was under $100, so we got off light. Still, how much would you pay to lose 15 to 20 pounds in less than a month? Likewise, tithing is a lot of money. Nearly identical to the amount of money our non-LDS friends typically spend on alcohol in a year. As we’ve seen in the news recently, less than 50% of evangelical preachers even think tithing is an important concept. No pain, no gain.
- Routine keeps you on track. When you know exactly what to expect at what times, it’s easier to keep on the diet. The church also likes to keep us on a busy little track: daily scriptures, weekly family home evening, monthly home/visiting teaching, weekly church meetings, mutual weekly, etc.
- There are detractors and proselyters. Some people are fanatically devoted to this as the miracle diet to end all diets. Others say it’s a hoax, don’t waste your money, it’ll ruin your health, it won’t work. Some detractors have expertise in certain fields or have done studies. Some have negative testimonials to back their claims. This should all sound pretty familiar to Mormons. There are plenty who are hell-bent on pointing out that the church isn’t what it claims or it’s damaging or it’s unnecessary; there are competing religions who work hard to illegitimize Mormonism as a religion so they don’t lose their own congregations to Mormon missionary efforts. There are some who have left the church and feel happier than ever. There are some members who think the church is 100% perfect and will fight to the death (but in a Christlike way of course) anyone that sees a flaw. It’s hard to find an unbiased perspective.
- It’s a lot easier to do with close friends or your spouse. When my husband did the protocol before, he and some colleagues did it together. Every day they would share their results and talk about how it was going. There was a sense of comaraderie in the dieting trenches. Because I didn’t need to lose at the time, he’d come home and find I had bought mini cupcakes slathered with an inch of buttercreme frosting on top. Now that we are doing the diet together, we are keeping each other on track. Truth is, if I decided the diet was stupid or decided to quit, it would be easier for him to quit it with me than to continue without me. Although it’s possible if he quit it, I’d stubbornly stick with it, resenting him all the way for his weakness and lack of support. With dieting, as with the church, it’s much easier to be in it together, grumbling and rejoicing side by side.
What if the church is a placebo? Does that make it less effective? Can you get all the benefits of membership without attending church, paying tithing, obeying the Word of Wisdom, going to the temple?
My own feelings are (with church and the diet), do what works. If the church gets me the results I’m looking for (a community of people I relate to as well as some that amuse me, opportunities to serve others, a standard of living that works for me and my family), that’s good enough for me. On some level, I don’t need to prove its claims because I know from experience what works for me.
And if it’s a placebo or its claims not true? Placebos can in fact get the same results for a variety of things because the mind is convinced. Does it matter so long as the result is the same? Studies have shown that prayers on behalf of other people do in fact help them to heal, but only if they know about it. To me, that’s the power of a placebo. Perhaps it’s also the key to spirituality: the power of the mind and belief over matter.
I don’t like to knock other methods that are out there. One size does not fit all. I know someone who did the HCG diet and had sudden hair loss. That’s an uncommon but reported side effect. The diet was definitely not for her (although she did lose a bunch of weight, and not just in hair, and is apparently considering trying the diet again). Some people never need to diet their whole lives. Some people don’t care what they weigh. To them, I say hats off and wish them well. The skeptics at Mayo can say what they want (in fact I noted that they do say essentially the same thing about every diet out there – perhaps in this church analogy they are The Slate) but I know my results and my choices, and I’m comfortable with them.
**All photos in this OP are from Google images; none are my own, although I did lose 15 pounds in 3 weeks, and look and feel great again!