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Fargo woman says she lost 40 pounds with diet spray, but critics say it's dangerous fad

Naomi Wawers of Fargo used the diet program at Spray Your Fat Away to lose 40 pounds in less than two months. J. Shane Mercer / The Forum

FARGO - A weight-loss fad that claims to spray the fat away might sound like a dream to the millions of Americans who suffer from obesity.

But the increasingly popular HCG diet that asks people to spray or inject a hormone found in the urine of pregnant women while slashing their daily caloric intake has found a formidable critic in the Better Business Bureau.

The watchdog organization recently issued an alert cautioning people about the HCG diet because it could be dangerous. Yet many who have tried it say the diet has helped them drop a lot of weight in a short amount of time when nothing else had previously worked.

"I've been on a million diets," says Naomi Wawers, who lives in Fargo. "I've taken different vitamins and pills in the past that made me feel kind of crazy."

But Wawers says that with the HCG diet offered by the Fargo business Spray Your Fat Away, she didn't feel unusual from the spray and she never felt like she was putting something unnatural in her body.

She also lost 40 pounds in less than two months.

Does it work?

Based on principles created in the 1950s by the late British physician Dr. A.T.W. Simeons, what has become known as the HCG diet typically involves taking a hormone produced by pregnant women called human chorionic gonadotrophin.

The hormone, which is primarily used to treat infertility, is often injected into the body and requires a prescription, but it can also be found in the form of oral drops or sprays in stores or on the Internet.

The HCG diet also asks participants to limit their daily consumed calories to around 500 a day, which is about the equivalent of a Subway 6-inch tuna sub or a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with cheese.

And the diet promises results with advertisements touting a program that will help consumers "lose weight fast," and "lose 1-2 pounds per day!"

It's that profusion of ads that has prompted the Better Business Bureaus of Minnesota and North Dakota to issue a recent alert on HCG as a weight-loss supplement. They're not the only critics.

The Food and Drug Administration says HCG has not shown to be effective in treating obesity; there is no substantial evidence that it increases weight loss beyond restricting calories, that it causes more attractive fat distribution, or that it decreases hunger.

HCG is not recognized by the FDA as a homeopathic drug. Products claiming to be homeopathic HCG are considered unapproved new drugs and are illegal, said Shelly Burgess, a public affairs specialist with the FDA.

Clinical trials evaluated by the Federal Trade Commission, which polices unfair practices, showed that weight-loss claims made by firms marketing HCG could not be substantiated. In its alert, the bureau stated that the severe caloric restriction,

and not the HCG hormone, causes the weight loss.

The Better Business Bureau also said that claims that the hormone decreases hunger are unproven.

But there are people who swear by the effectiveness of the HCG diet.

Keeping weight off

Since opening in Fargo this past October, Spray Your Fat Away has provided more than 400 dieters with a diet program that's been touted in advertisements all around Fargo-Moorhead. Darren Fitch, the business' chief operating officer, said not one person has said it didn't work.

The program has people using an oral spray that contains trace elements

of HCG and 15 to 20 homeopathic ingredients.

The business also instructs its dieters to follow a 600 to 800 daily calorie diet focused around fruit, vegetables and lean protein and

to take an appetite suppressant and B12 vitamin supplement.

Emile Bouari, founder of the Bouari Clinic, which supplies Spray Your Fat Away's product, says their formula mimics HCG because it is made with trace amounts of the hormone.

"When we create 1 million bottles, we use one prescription HCG of 5,000 (international Units) to create those 1 million bottles of HCG, so if you tested the bottles of our spray, there is no HCG in it," Bouari says. "It has trace amounts, meaning it has the energy frequency of the HCG in it. It acts like it, but then we put 16 different things in it."

The company came out with a new formula in March, said Steven Fitch, owner of Spray Your Fat Away.

A 30-day supply of the oral spray typically costs $449, and a 60-day supply costs $599, but the business is currently running a special of $100 off the 30-day supply and $150 off the 60-day program.

Fitch said the diet doesn't leave users hungry because the spray triggers the body to metabolize 2,000 calories of fat a day.

"The person is being fed nutrition from their fat, along with 600 to 800 calories," Fitch says. "That's more than enough to support any person during a daily diet."

Dave Lynnes, of Fargo, says he didn't feel weak or that he was starving himself while on the Spray Your Fat Away program. And the Fargo man, who was overweight and had high blood pressure, lost 30 to 35 pounds after using the program and adopting a more healthy eating routine.

He's since been off Spray Your Fat Away for 45 days and is maintaining his weight.

Wawers started the 60-day program last January and has also kept her weight off since then, even though she no longer uses the spray and now eats close to 2,000 calories a day, including carbohydrates.

She also didn't crave junk food, but says that doesn't mean it was easy.

Wawers was eating between 700 and 800 calories a day on the diet but she wasn't hungry and didn't take the appetite suppressant that comes with the program.

"I had to work super hard on this diet because it is very strict eating," Wawers says. "It wasn't just about looking better; it was about actually getting healthier. That was their main focus, losing weight so you can be healthy, and that, for me, really clicked."

Diet dangers

Spray Your Fat Away's Fitch said he welcomes the Better Business Bureau's recommendation on HCG because he says a lot of what's being sold online as HCG is "just a bunch of junk."

But while some worry about what's added to some HCG formulas, the main concern with this diet seems to be in the very low recommended caloric intake.

The average daily recommended caloric intake is 2,500 for men and 2,000 for women, varying slightly by age, weight, height, and activity level.

Cutting calories to fewer than 50 percent of the advised amount is considered starvation.

Kathy Olson, a health dietitian at Sanford Health, said even people who have had bariatric surgery (weight loss surgeries like gastric bypass and gastric banding) are discouraged from consuming so few calories.

"If we're not consuming enough calories, our body goes into starvation mode, and that's when a person's metabolism can drop low," Olson says. "We'd like to think that if we're not consuming very many calories that it will automatically use our body fat for energy, but often we are also using our body's protein or muscle."

Consuming only 500 calories a day could cause blood clots, dizziness and rapid weight gain once a person returns to a normal caloric intake.

And a body in starvation mode is also at risk for heart rhythm abnormalities, electrolyte imbalances, anemia, brittle bones, hair loss, gallstones, and loss of menstrual periods in women, according to Everyday Health, an online provider of health information.

Of course, the risks of obesity are also troubling.

To lose weight, Olson recommends developing a healthy routine with meals and snacks, eating a small meal or snack every three to four hours, adding fruits and vegetables to decrease portions of high calorie foods, and drinking 64 ounces of water a day.

"With weight management, it takes time," Olson said. "It might be slower weight loss, but it's not always easy to make the changes."

What is HCG?

Human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG) is a hormone found in the urine of pregnant women. It is primarily used for fertility but has recently gained popularity as a weight-loss aid. It is often injected into the body but can also be found in the form of oral drops and sprays. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration said the use of HCG for dietary purposes is fraudulent and illegal.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526