The HCG Diet

23 08 2010

Recently, I was on Amazon and noticed in their discussion forums a question about the HCG diet. I only became aware of this diet a few months ago, after someone on Facebook mentioned it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the diet, it is based on the work of a Dr. ATW Simeons, published in his book Pounds and Inches more than 50 years ago. The diet is based on eating 500 calories a day for several weeks, accompanied by daily shots of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), which he claimed would help mobilize stores of “abnormal” fat that is not normally available for your body’s energy needs. After several weeks, people on the diet transition to normal caloric intake with a diet based mostly on whole food (meats, fruits, vegetables, etc.). The cycle is repeated as many times as necessary to attain the desired weight loss.

Interest in the diet was revitalized in 2007 with the publication of informercial king Kevin Trudeau’s The Weight Loss Cure They Don’t Want You to Know About.

Now, anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that I am more than happy to deviate from the mainstream and embrace ideas that at first seem totally whacky, as long as there is solid reasoning and evidence to support the idea. So although I was skeptical when I first heard about this diet, I tried to keep an open mind when researching it. After reading from a lot of different sources, I came to the following conclusions:

  1. If you limit yourself to 500 calories a day, you’re going to lose fat pretty quickly, but doing so can be dangerous, and if you’re not smart about it, you’re going to lose muscle too.
  2. If you adopt a diet based on whole, natural foods, you’re probably going to have an easy time maintaining any fat loss, and may even be able to slowly lose weight.
  3. Numerous independent studies have shown that HCG is no more effective than a placebo when used in conjunction with this diet’s eating plan. Injecting HCG also has some potentially very serious side effects, and of course, it’s not free.

In other words, any successes of the HCG diet can be attributed to the first two points, and there are many other diets that use these principles, especially the second (and if you want to go with a very-low calorie diet for rapid fat loss, there are alternatives that are much more attractive). But because this diet includes injecting something that is not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous, I’d steer clear of it.

Sifting Through the Garbage

In researching this diet, I noticed a couple of disturbing things.

The first is that, no matter what combination of search terms I used in conjunction with HCG, Google’s first several pages of results were dominated by sites that are owned and operated by companies or individuals selling HCG. To me, that suggests that there is a lot of money being made selling HCG to people who are desperate to lose weight, and the people making that money have a vested interest in people believing that HCG is an essential part of the process. In order to find more objective information on HCG, I had to go directly to sources like WebMD, Pubmed, Wikipedia, and the personal websites of weight-loss professionals that I trust.

The second is that any time I found any information critical of the HCG diet, the comments section would be inundated with people attacking the article, generally not by rebutting the facts but by sharing their own testimonials, usually along the lines of “I’ve been on this diet for 4 days and I’ve already lost 10 pounds.” This happened to me when I posted on Amazon, which caused me to want to write this blog. These people display almost cult-like characteristics, a phenomenon that has been commented on at a few of the fitness forums I visit. My theory is that these people are either being paid by companies that sell HCG, or they are people who have genuinely lost weight on the diet but suffer from confirmation bias preventing them from recognizing that the HCG itself has nothing to do with their success.

Further Reading

If you or someone you know is seriously considering the HCG diet, I strongly recommend that you thoroughly read some of the following articles and come to your own conclusions:

Fitness log, 8/8/10

8 08 2010

Lately, other than brief interruptions when I travel (and even on my trip to China, I made mostly responsible food choices and hit the gym a couple of times), I’ve been very consistent with both my diet and exercise. About a month ago, I started Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 program, and I’ve been very pleased with the results so far. In addition to that, I’ve increased my overall activity level: taking the (7 flights of) stairs at work, walking more (a half hour each way to the gym yesterday), with the occasional bike ride, jumping rope, and sprinting. My weight is dropping consistently, and I think I’m on track to hit 200 by the end of August.

I noticed something disturbing today. According to my Tanita scale, I currently weigh 207.5 with 27% body fat. I’ve said before that I think that’s considerably higher than what I’m really at, but taken at face value, that means I have about 150 pounds of lean body mass. Back in January when I first started this, I was 232.5 at 31% body fat. That’s a bit over 160 pounds of lean body mass. So assuming that the scale is at least relatively accurate, that means I’ve lost 10 pounds of muscle and 15 pounds of fat.

I’d like to write off the muscle loss as inaccuracy of the scale, but the truth is, my training logs show that I AM moving less weight than I used to at the gym, and my muscles seem to be a bit smaller. Really, this is no surprise. I went through a period where I was horribly inconsistent with my weight training, and then in April, I suspended it completely to focus on preparing for Ragnar. As I said a few posts ago, I think that running is terrible for fat loss precisely because it does nothing to preserve muscle, and my experience seems to confirm this.

Based on my current numbers, to get to my ultimate goal of 10% body fat, assuming that I can hold onto the lean body mass I have now, I’ll have to drop down to under 170 pounds. Ugh. However, I estimate that my scale reports at least 5% higher than what it really is, and if I stay on track I’ll probably be adding some muscle back on, so it may be more like 180-190. That’s not so far off.

Weight: 207.5
BF%: 27

Jan 1st starting weight: 232.5
Starting BF%: 31

My Fat Loss Philosophy, Part 2

20 07 2010

If you missed the first part of this, check it out here.

In this installment, I’m going to focus on exercise.

Weight training

I firmly believe that weight training should be a part of your exercise program no matter what your fitness goals are, and that it is the most important thing you can do for fat loss. Let me explain why.

First of all, obviously, weight training burns calories. But not only does it burn them while you’re working out, intense weight training will temporarily boost your metabolism so that you keep burning calories at an elevated level long after you’re done.

Second of all, your body requires more calories to maintain muscle tissue than it does fat tissue. What this means is that the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns even when you’re not doing anything! The actual additional amount of calories burned is disputed, and this article provides an excellent analysis, but it’s clear that additional muscle helps in the long-term battle against fat.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, weight training is important to help keep the muscle that you already have. Because muscle is metabolically expensive, when you’re in a caloric deficit, your body is going to want to break it down and use it for energy, so you’ll end up losing both fat and muscle. Because of the second point above, you definitely don’t want this to happen because it’ll make maintaining your fat loss that much more difficult. By weight training, especially with heavy weights, you’re sending the message to your body that it needs its muscle. Doing this, combined with a protein-rich diet, will help minimize muscle loss.

There are other benefits of weight training, but hopefully these are enough to convince you.

As for how to weight train, that’s a topic for multiple posts itself, but here’s a few important points:

  • Focus on big, multi-joint movements, like squats, deadlifts, military presses, dips, chinups, rows, etc.
  • Do full body workouts, or upper/lower splits
  • For fat-loss purposes, keep your workouts short (30-60 minutes) and intense (short rest intervals between sets)

A common objection people have to weight training – especially women – is that they don’t want to get bulky like the people on the cover of muscle magazines. Something you need to understand is that those people are genetically gifted, eat and train at insane levels, and (importantly) take boatloads of steroids. Trust me, you’re not going to get that big and bulky by accident, and it’s not going to happen overnight.


The quotes are there because I’m using this to refer to everything besides weight training. As mentioned above, I believe weight training to be of utmost importance, and it should always take priority, but if you have time to do additional exercise, it’ll help you burn additional calories, as well as conveying other benefits.

I prefer to do things that are intense for short periods, rather than low- to moderate-intensity endurance types of exercise, since I find the former much more effective (and way less boring) over the long haul. For me this typically means:

  • HIIT, including Tabata
  • Sprints
  • Jumping rope
  • Barbell complexes

Once a week, I’ll go for a run or a bike ride. In general, I think that endurance-oriented activities like running suck for long-term fat-loss (that’s a post for another day), but doing it occasionally is fine.

Staying healthy

I’m 38, and over the years, I’ve been stupid about the way I exercise, so I’ve had my share of injuries. To help avoid this, every day I try to spend some time doing mobility and soft tissue work.

Mobility work consists of dynamic stretching and various exercises to improve the range of motion of my joints and muscles. I try to do this as often as I can, because I’ve managed to become rather inflexible over the years.

Soft tissue work consists of using a foam roller and tennis ball to essentially give myself deep tissue massages. This helps break down and clear scar tissue, and although it hurts initially, it has made a huge difference in keeping me pain and injury free.

Moving more

In addition to the formal exercise listed above, I’ve made an effort to simply move more. This includes getting up from my desk periodically to just walk around the office, walking rather than driving to nearby stores, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and so on.

Starting out

If you’re in a position where you’re just starting to try to lose fat, all of this may seem a little overwhelming. My advise would be to just start doing something. It really doesn’t matter what it is, and if you’re going from a relatively sedentary life now, you’ll most likely see huge improvements almost immediately. It’s best to try to do something you enjoy, because let’s face it, motivation is a huge factor for most people.

Weight: 212.5
BF%: 28

Jan 1st starting weight: 232.5
Starting BF%: 31

My Fat Loss Philosophy, Part 1

14 07 2010

I’ve been actively trying to either lose fat or gain muscle most of my life. While I’m no expert, I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. Especially over the past 5 years, when I haven’t gotten the results I’ve wanted, it hasn’t been because I didn’t know what to do, but simply because I didn’t do it. My knowledge is based on reading hundreds if not thousands of articles by some of the world’s leading experts in strength and conditioning and fatloss, who in turn base their work on research and extensive personal experience.

Of course, all of that knowledge would be useless if I hadn’t applied it to myself to see what works for me. At my best, I’ve lost more than 70 pounds of fat and made significant gains in the weightroom. After having gone through this process several times, I’ve developed a certain philosophy to fat loss and training. I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about my approach, but I thought I’d share it for those who are interested. At the moment, I’m going to focus on fat loss since that’s what I’m working on right now. After working on this post for a bit, I realized that it’s much more likely to get finished if I break it up into parts. In this first part, I’ll cover some general principles. In part two, I’ll cover exercise, and I’ll wrap up with part three on diet and nutrition. Throughout, if anyone wants me to expand on anything, let me know.

For the record, in the past, I’ve been rather dogmatic about my approach to these things, but recently I’ve become much more flexible. What I’m about to say works for me, but there are many ways to skin a cat.


Ultimately, losing fat is simply a matter of creating a caloric deficit (i.e. eating fewer calories than your body uses in a given day). Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something. However, there is some disagreement over how to go about creating a caloric deficit.

Some people recommend calculating your caloric needs, and then logging everything you eat to ensure that you’re eating less than what your body requires. Other people recommend just eating healthy foods, and just trying to eat a little less if you’re not losing weight. Personally, I tend toward the latter, but part of the reason I’m able to do that is because I’ve done the former so I have a pretty good idea of the nutritional content of most of the foods I eat. For someone just starting out, I’d probably recommend just trying to eat clean (I’ll talk more about what I mean when I get to diet), but to try the log if you get stuck.

You CAN lose weight just by dieting, but I wouldn’t recommend it. When doing so, you tend to lose muscle as well as fat, which in the long run will decrease your metabolism and make it harder to maintain your fat loss. In addition to helping to create a caloric deficit, there are also many other healthful benefits of exercise, so I consider it essential to any fat loss program.

A Calorie is not Exactly a Calorie

Let’s say you’re taking a more structured approach to creating a caloric deficit, and you budget around 400 calories a meal. There are many ways you could fill those calories. For example, you could eat 1 or 2 donuts depending on the type, or you could eat 50 cups of raw spinach. Either way, you meet your deficit requirements. But the spinach would definitely leave you full (you wouldn’t even come close to being able to finish it!) and is packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The donuts, not so much. So clearly, how you get your calories matters. I’ll save specific recommendations for the diet post.

Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss

Note that I’m making a distinction between losing fat and losing weight. Just losing weight can also involve losing muscle (which you want to avoid) and losing water (which is mostly temporary and is largely to blame for sudden swings). Measuring fat loss is more involved than just tracking weight loss, but if you follow my recommendations and ignore fluctuations due to water, then generally if your scale weight is going down over a span of weeks and months, then you’re losing fat.

Settling in for the Long Haul

A common mistake in fat loss is not taking a long term view. If you’re severely overweight, you can lose a ton of weight initially, but eventually – and probably long before you reach your ideal weight – you’ll reach the point where a pound or two a week is the most you can safely and realistically lose. You’ll also have periods where your fat loss will stall, and you’ll want to take a short break to refeed. You need to be patient, and you need to look at your diet and exercise changes not as temporary modifications to lose fat, but as permanent lifestyle changes. For this reason, you need to do your best to find ways to eat and exercise that you enjoy, and be sure that you really want to do this for you.

Weight: 214.0
BF%: 28

Jan 1st starting weight: 232.5
Starting BF%: 31

Fitness log, 7/7/10

7 07 2010

Well, it’s been a month. I’m actually pretty happy with where my weight is at, considering there was a week+ vacation (with Amy and her kids, which was awesome!) where I didn’t exercise or eat all that well.

Ragnar went really well, and I survived better than I expected, although by my third leg my knee was so sore I could barely move it. A few days, some ice, and a little Vicodin later, it was doing better. I’ve only done one run since then (a quick, easy 3 miles), and going forward, I’m not going to be running very often.

Instead, I’ve moved back to what I enjoy: regular weight training, with intervals, sprints, and similar high-intensity activities for cardio.

I’m starting to get tired of being in fat loss mode. I want to focus on building muscle, but I’m still carrying around too much fat to do so effectively. So I’m setting a goal to weigh 200 pounds by the end of August. That should put me a lot closer to where I want to be. Then I’ll assess where I want to go from there.

Weight: 217.5
BF%: 28

Jan 1st starting weight: 232.5
Starting BF%: 31

Fitness log, 6/7/10

7 06 2010

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these. Sadly, the Game Developers Conference got me badly off track, and I’m just now getting back into the thick of it.

Rather than recapping the last several months, I’ll just cover the last week. For Memorial Day weekend, Amy and I met in Las Vegas to see Flight of the Conchords and spend several fantastic days together. Before we left, we challenged each other to lose at least 5 pounds by the next time we see each other, which will be June 16th, right before Ragnar. I wasn’t exactly sure how much I weighed at the time, but I thought I could probably do better than 5 pounds.

I got home, and the next day, which was last Tuesday, I climbed on the scale and read 228. Ouch. But I was determined to eat right and exercise daily. All week long, with very few exceptions, I’ve limited myself to eating meat, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. With Ragnar being only two weeks out, my focus is on running/endurance, so I only got one light weight training session in, but I did do quite a bit of soft tissue work/mobility drills throughout the week. On top of that, I had runs of 5, 2.5, and 6 miles. My legs were a little sore from running, so I decided to mix it up a bit yesterday and did a 15 mile bike ride. The results? Well, you can see below. I know that’s a lot of weight to lose in a week, and that’s partially attributable to water and from starting a little high. But regardless, I’m very happy that I’ve already hit my goal. I’ve now modified it and I’m going to attempt to get down to 215 by Ragnar, which is how much I weighed when I started dating Amy nearly 9 months ago.

One final note. I’ve been through this weight loss cycle numerous times over the years. A lot of the time, I’m just maintaining my weight. Sometimes, I’m not even making an effort, and the weight piles on. And occasionally, I get in a mode where the weight just slides off, and I lose dozens of pounds over the course of several months. Looking back, these times of serious losses all have one thing in common: I was obsessed. Serious, hardcore weight loss does not have to take a long time, but you have to be absolutely focused, eating right (almost) all the time, not skipping your exercise, and having a positive attitude about it.  I feel like I’m there again. The awesome thing is that I’m starting off at least 30 pounds lighter than any time this has happened in the past. Hopefully I will not have anything throw me off track again, and I’ll finally be able to dip down below 200 and stay there.

Weight: 219
BF%: 28

Jan 1st starting weight: 232.5
Starting BF%: 31

Lack of Imagination

3 05 2010

In online discussions lately, I’ve often seen people make the point that there are some services that we need the government to provide. They believe that either the market can’t or won’t provide those services, or that if it did, only the rich would be able to afford them.

These people are severely lacking in imagination.

Let’s take the example of police and fire services. These unimaginative people picture a world where your house is burning down, and you have to call the fire department and provide a credit card number, and if you don’t have the money, well, better grab your garden hose and start spraying. If you got mugged, you’d REALLY be screwed because you wouldn’t have your wallet to pay the cop to go after the mugger!

But let’s see if we can come up with some better ways that police and fire services might be provided without government involvement.

For small communities, they might be provided on a voluntary basis. Volunteer fire departments still exist all over the country.

For larger communities, this wouldn’t be practical, so instead you would have a number of private, competing agencies providing these services. They could provide them on an as-needed basis, but more likely, you’d buy police and fire protection in the same way you buy insurance now. Homeowners and renters insurance policies might bundle them as part of their packages. Or maybe if you’re part of an HOA, they could contract with these agencies on your behalf and they’d be included in the HOA fees. Certainly owners of rental properties would want to have these services available to protect their investment.

The beauty of the market is that it tends to provide innovative and creative solutions in ways that are often difficult to foresee. I think that the possibilities that I’ve briefly described provide viable alternatives to what we have now, and should at least suggest that the market can provide these essential services.

As for only the rich being able to afford them, I’d like to point out that we’re all paying for those things now – even those people who don’t directly pay income taxes still pay for these services indirectly in one way or another. But there is no reason to think that privatizing these services wouldn’t reduce the overall cost that is paid for them, and thus actually make them more affordable for everyone.

Maybe next time, I’ll go into why we don’t need the FDA, FAA, FTC, etc. Although if people use their imagination, perhaps I won’t need to.

A little help from my friends…

21 04 2010

As many of you probably know, for the past 7+ months I’ve been dating Amy, a truly amazing woman who happens to live in Logan, Utah, where I grew up. I spent quite a bit of time with her over the holidays, including taking my kids to meet her for the first time. A week after I returned to California, Amy came home to a nightmare: her basement was filled with a foot of water, and was continuing to fill. As she describes herself on her blog, after spending a few minutes trying to take care of it herself, and nearly freezing in the process, she realized she needed help and called a local company specializing in that kind of thing. They were soon on the scene, and after assuring her that her homeowners insurance would cover everything, they proceeded to move everything out of her basement, pump out the water, pull up the carpet, and remove all of the baseboards and the bottom two feet of drywall.

A few days later the insurance adjuster shows up and informs her that, due to the flood being from the bursting of an outside pipe that was not properly winterized, they weren’t going to cover the damages. At all.

Amy is a single mother of two just struggling to get by in this economy. Her ex-husband hasn’t paid her a penny of child support in more than a year. Just coming up with the money to pay the recovery company is a challenge. Paying someone to restore her basement is out of the question. And so, 4 months later, the basement is still mostly empty, with gaping holes in the bottom of all of the walls. Because the bedrooms for her two boys were in the basement, and are currently unusable, every night they sleep on Amy’s floor.

This summer, when I visit Amy in Logan, I’m going to take a crack at putting her basement back together. The drywall needs to be replaced, the carpet needs to have the pad replaced, and the walls need to be painted. I’ve done plenty of painting, but I’ve never done much with drywall or carpet.

What I’m hoping is that I have friends and family in Logan that can help out. If there are enough of them, maybe we can even get it over with quickly.

I’ll be in Logan next from May 6th to May 9th. If you’re reading this, and know something about hanging drywall or laying carpet (or even if you don’t!) and would be willing to help out, let me know by posting here or by sending me an email If you want to help but can’t make it then, I’ll be back again regularly, so let me know anyway. Thanks in advance to anyone who volunteers, and if you don’t, well, I love you anyway!


I’ve had a great response. Thanks to those who did! I’ve had a few people say they couldn’t help out in person but they offered to donate, so I set up a Paypal fund to do that. Anything I receive will go to purchase drywall, paint, etc., to complete the project. Thanks again to everyone!

Update #2!

Looks like we’re going to do this Saturday May 8th starting about 10 am. I’ll get in touch directly with everyone who responded, but if you’d like to join us, just let me know!

Fitness log, 3/1/10

1 03 2010

As you may have gathered if you’re friends with me on Facebook, for all of last week, I had all 5 kids, their friend Emily, and (for at least part of the week) Lissa living in my 2 bedroom apartment with me. I don’t think I need to say how disruptive something like that can be to your schedule, and my eating and exercise habits definitely took a hit this week. I did still manage to get in 2 of my weight training sessions, and ran once for 4 miles, averaging 9:30 per mile, which is not bad at all considering.

I’m therefore shocked that I managed to drop 4 pounds this week, getting me back on track to where I was before last week’s spike up. I’m mostly discounting the supposed 2% drop in bodyfat. Awesome if it’s true, but the Tanita scale I’m using is wildly inconsistent; the numbers are mainly going to be useful over a long stretch of time.

On Friday, I leave for San Francisco for a owner’s retreat (where Amy will be joining me!), and then I’ll be at the Game Developers Conference all next week. I’m going to do my best to at least get 2-3 runs in every week (I’m running out of time until Ragnar), hopefully do at least some weight training, and make responsible choices while eating out. Wish me luck!

Weight: 223.5
BF%: 28

Jan 1st starting weight: 232.5
Starting BF%: 31

Fitness log, 2/22/10

22 02 2010

With the craziness of the move and a trip to Utah to see Amy, I managed to miss last week, but here I am back.

For the same factors, I haven’t been fully consistent with either my diet or workout for the better part of two weeks. I did manage to get in two runs a week, and I’m now able to consistently average less than 10 minute miles,  so I’m on track there again.

After returning from another awesome visit to Amy, my weight had crept back up to 228. When I got on the scale on Thursday, I was at 222.5, and then, after two full days of busting my ass moving, and eating whatever was handy, on Sunday I hit 230. Even though I know that most of that fluctuation is due to water (nothing else makes sense), it’s still pretty frustrating.

Hopefully I can get fully back on track this week.

Weight: 227.5
BF%: 30

Jan 1st starting weight: 232.5
Starting BF%: 31