The biggest seller is cookbooks and the second is diet books — how not to eat what you’ve just learned how to cook. — Andy Rooney
I delight in playing hostess to out-of-towners. I use the occasion as an excuse to take a break from the usual and play tour guide, escorting visitors to my favorite attractions and haunts. Aside from cooking for his guests, one of David’s favorite hosting activities is planning the menu.
A week before his college friend Erin was due in town for a conference, David sat at the table sifting through a scattering of his cookbooks while I browsed restaurant menus on the internet. “Let’s take her to Tre Porcellini,” I said.
“Sure, that might work,” said David in his noncommittal tone. “What do you think — fava beans with caramelized shallots or brussels sprouts with pancetta?”
I shrugged. “Whatever you make is gonna be awesome. But we should find out what her schedule is before we go shopping or make any reservations. Why don’t you check your email and see if she wrote back yet?”
A minute after David opened his laptop, he said, “Oh, NO!” and groaned like a man being speared with a sword in a Japanese samurai flick. The longer it took him to recover from the horror of whatever he had read, the more worried I became. Eventually, David lifted his heavy head and met my gaze. “Erin wrote back. She says, ‘Um...I’m on a really stupid and restrictive diet, which I consider kind of a crime to be on while I’m visiting you. I hope that this doesn’t mess up any plans you had. It seems like a crime to come to your house with your awesome imagination for food and eat the most boring diet ever invented.’ ”
“That’s it? No problem, I’m sure she can find something at each of these resta —”
“No, that won’t work.” David sighed. “She’s on some hormone and is only eating 500 calories a day. She sent a list of what she can eat: apple, lettuce, boiled chicken breast. But,” David’s tone brightened, “she says she can have all the spices she wants and that she, quote, ‘seems to be able to cheat with a quarter of a teaspoon of practically anything.’”
A hush fell over us as we pondered the ramifications of our friend’s “really stupid and restrictive” diet.
Finally, I broke the silence: “That’s starvation. Does she realize how destructive that’ll be to her organs? Shit, even anorexics strive for 800 calories a day to remain functioning!” My head rolled along with my eyes. I couldn’t imagine any physician condoning a starvation diet — even a temporary one — for anyone not morbidly obese. Doctors only recommend such drastic measures when the health benefits of quick weight loss exceed the risks.
After a few minutes spent silently shaking our heads, I asked, “What’s the hormone called?”
I was disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to wine and dine our guest, so I redirected my research energy into trying to save her. I suspend my “live and let live” philosophy when someone I care about buys into a malodorous scheme, especially if it involves getting rich quick or losing weight fast.
HCG stands for human chorionic gonadotropin. As the root “gonad” suggests, the hormone has to do with reproduction — it’s naturally found in the urine of pregnant women, but scientists discovered a way to extract the stuff and administer it by injection to treat both men and women for infertility. In the ’50s, a guy named Dr. Simeons claimed that, when taken in conjunction with a starvation diet, HCG helps people lose weight. Despite his inability to prove it scientifically, Dr. Simeons maintained that the hormone kept dieters from feeling hungry and somehow burned away only the fat they didn’t want (say, in the belly) while keeping the fat they didn’t mind having (e.g., breasts).
The man who brought this antiquated fad back was convicted fraudster Kevin Trudeau, who was recently ordered to pay $37 million after being sued by the Federal Trade Commission for “the unethical promotion of HCG.” This was the same guy whose business was shut down in 2004 for promoting a calcium supplement he claimed could cure cancer.
The American Dietetic Association and the Society for Nutrition Education state that 500 calories a day is not enough to support normal brain function and that on such a diet the body will cannibalize itself, eating both fat and muscle to survive. The Food and Drug Administration released a statement in 2009 that included, “No evidence has been presented to substantiate claims for HCG as a weight-loss aid.”
The morning after Erin arrived, she, David, and I stood in the kitchen. Erin drank herbal tea while I sipped espresso. In my head, I practiced segues to the topic, but when I set down my cup, I blurted, “I’m worried about your organs.” I’d launched an attack, which put Erin on the defensive. It wasn’t my intention to “argue,” but that’s exactly what — to David’s horror — I was doing.
“Simeons ran a clinic doing this for 50 years,” Erin said.
“How long someone does something doesn’t impress me,” I snapped. “People used leeches to cure things like headaches for hundreds of years.” When Erin referenced Trudeau’s book, I said, “You mean the guy who was just convicted of fraud?”
“Well, he makes one good point,” Erin said. “Drug companies and the FDA don’t want people to know HCG works because they would lose billions.”
“Now we’re talking conspiracy theories? As if Trudeau has nothing to gain from claiming that?” I caught a glare from David and took my foot off the gas. “If it works for you, that’s great, go for it,” I said. “Just know that you’re losing weight because you’re starving yourself and not because of the HCG.” I couldn’t help it.
I felt bad for attacking Erin, a delightful woman who exudes good vibes and has nothing but nice things to say about everyone she encounters. There was less heat in my voice when I added, “I don’t have to prove that it doesn’t work. The people selling it have to prove that it does. And in all of my research, aside from seeing before and after shots of people who lost weight from starving themselves, I found no proof.”
Tuckered from our zeal for our respective causes, Erin and I ended on a civil note. She emailed me some documents, including Simeons’s diet manuscript and Dr. Belluscio’s 1987 study showing the efficacy of the method. I swallowed a retort about Belluscio being the guy who developed a way to sell an oral version of HCG and promised to read them, though I already had.