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Placebo Effect Is Powerful for Patients

Dear Dr. Roach: My two girlfriends began a weight-loss program (we are all overweight by 35-50 pounds) with a medically supervised HCG program. They both have lost 20 pounds in three weeks. I know that the stock answer is that any severely restricted diet will give those results. But they both are full of energy, NEVER hungry, and they don’t have cravings or that deprived feeling that goes with dieting. Are there any statistics regarding the HCG program that you can pass on?

My doctor just says that the Food and Drug Administration does not recognize this off-label use of the drug. There must be some medical studies on this. Please give me a real answer as to results and safety. — P.R.

Answer: I can’t recommend HCG as a treatment to help people lose weight. A trial in 1973 showed benefit, but since then there have been four trials that compared injections of HCG with placebo injections, and there were no differences in weight loss, sensation of hunger or mood.

I often mention placebo in my columns, but while most people know that “placebo” just means an inactive substance, I don’t think I have really made clear how powerful the “placebo effect” can be. If you really believe that a treatment will help you, it is pretty likely to make you feel better.

That effect is true whether it’s a prescription or over-the-counter medication, supplement, injection or surgery. For a medication, device or procedure to be considered effective by the FDA, it has to be proven to be more effective than placebo.