I wanted to write a general and topical post on diets, food fads and such, but in truth the subject is way too big to cover with one article.
Every January the marketing machine cranks up the promotion of ways to shed the pounds. Miracle supplement, easy exercise, “weird trick” or whatever, the message is always the same: buy X and you will lose weight much more easily than if you don’t buy X. For multiple, sometimes mutually exclusive values of X.
January is peak Diet Woo season, but, in truth, scarcely a week goes by year round without some new diet or product being punted, debunked, yet continuing to phenomenal success anyway. Paleo, “bulletproof”, raspberry ketones (pretty much everything promoted by Dr. Oz for weight loss) and a good deal more besides.
There are two that really get my goat, though: "wheat belly" and HCG. Wheat belly because I have coeliac disease and my tolerance for nonsense about gluten is no better than my tolerance of gluten, and HCG because it was a fraud that nearly died out but was resurrected by an arch-fraudster in what was almost certainly a completely cynical move.
Try a Twitter search for #HCG and you will see a legion of spammers, crooks, charlatans, hucksters and the occasional poor schmuck who’s been sucked in. Top concern for these people is hunger, because the HCG diet allows, in its classic form, only 500kcal / day. That is less than the documented allowance at Auschwitz. Of course people are hungry! And of course they lose weight.
The HCG diet was invented in the 1950s by Albert T. W. Simeons, and refuted not long after. Simeons believed that the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) caused people on extreme calorie restriction diets to experience less hunger. Randomized controlled trials showed this to be wrong, but not before he had built up a substantial empire (Miracle diets always sell - nothing parts people from their cash more reliably than the claim to lose weight without effort).
Simeons was required to put the "quack Miranda warning" on his adverts, but seemed to make a tidy profit nonetheless, until his death in 1970, after which it seems to have tailed right off in popularity.
Then along came notorious infomercial pitchman and convicted fraudster Kevin Trudeau. His book, “The Weight Loss Cure They Don’t Want You To Know About” promoted the diet, and the hare was off again. Trudeau was prosecuted in 1998 for false and misleading claims in infomercials respective of this book, which he settled in 2004 by agreeing to pay a $0.5m fine. He didn’t pay. In 2011 the appeal court upped the fine to $37.6m; in 2013 he was imprisoned for contempt of court and finally in 2014 he was jailed for ten years for fraud.
Staggeringly, despite Trudeau’s conviction for fraud based on this book, it is still on sale at Amazon. We really do need to have a conversation about this some time: they also sell Jim Humble’s execrable “Miracle Mineral Solution” books and others promoting similar scams, as well as Trudeau’s other books promoting things They don’t want you to know about (largely consisting of ways to transfer your money to Kevin Trudeau’s bank, by all accounts).
I don’t say that Trudeau is solely responsible, but it does seem that he played a very significant role in revitalizing this bogus diet.
The HCG diet bandwagon is interesting for the skeptic because HCG, as a hormone, is a regulated drug. Thus four strands of problematic conduct exist in parallel:
- Doctors prescribe HCG for weight loss despite the fact that it doesn’t work;
- Pharmacies sell under-the-counter supplies of the prescription-only medication;
- Online stores sell fake products, supplements with “HCG” in prominent type, but do not contain HCG, and so on;
Some doctors who prescribe HCG for weight loss, and the cottage industry that arose around them, use the “renegade genius” gambit to claim that bariatric surgeons want to protect their lap band business. This is palpable nonsense. Members of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians could and would clean up if HCG worked, because they all have physicians’ licenses and can prescribe it. (See their position statement for a good rundown of the actual evidence.)
Believers have set up the “HCG diet council” to sponsor trials and other work to show that the HCG diet works - a fine example of pathological science at work. The founder, Dr Beth Golden, has a PhD (in religion) and an ND (which you might guess stands for Not a Doctor) and the group includes many who “specialise in alternative medicine”, or quacks, to give their usual colloquial collective name. Really, read the website: its focus on profit and past claims, and steadfast avoidance of conflicting data and inconvenient reality, would do a “straight” chiropractor credit.
Quacks don’t have prescribing rights so they are reliant on real doctors for the prescriptions. Maverick doctors are propped up by an unholy alliance of cranks and quasi-religious believers, with a subtext of FDA “suppression” and martyr complex. One can only presume that in time they will try to use legislative alchemy to legitimize their trade.
Meanwhile regulators including the FDA and FTC are still trying to stamp out the fraud to this day. And Trudeau is still making money from it thanks to Amazon.