Mindy Moss's customers are shocked when they see her. They want to know how the well-known Winnipegger got her newly svelte figure, which seemed to appear overnight.
The answer? It happens every morning at Eyelet Dove, her popular Academy Road lingerie boutique. There, amongst the clutter of her tiny shop kitchen, she injects herself--usually in the abdomen-- with human chorionic gonadotropin, also known as HCG.
It has been her ritual since May when she signed up for the HCG diet, administered by Winnipeg physician Dr. Roman Chubaty.
Moss has lost more than 50 pounds on the diet -- 10 in the first week alone. She's got 20 more to go.
The controversial weight-loss plan, invented in the 1950s, involves consuming just 500 calories a day and injecting HCG, a hormone that women produce during pregnancy. The hormone helps the fetus get necessary nutrients. Men also produce the hormone, but in smaller amounts.
Health Canada first approved prescription HCG in the 1980s -- in its injectable form -- for women undergoing fertility treatment.
Chubaty says HCG, when injected for weight loss, suppresses appetite and prevents the dangerous "metabolic collapse" associated with ultra-low-calorie eating.
Moss, who has struggled with her weight for most of her 57 years, is proud of her new body.
"Would you like to see me do a one-armed pushup?" asks the vivacious Moss during an interview in her chic boutique, which is painted a soft pink with black accents.
The Tuxedo grandmother unzips her Lululemon jacket and peels it off to reveal her bare arms. She flexes them, showing off a muscular bulge -- an attempt to prove she's fitter than ever and even has enough energy to sustain twice-weekly workouts with her personal trainer.
Moss is aware that her new diet has critics, who say that injecting a hormone is an unnecessarily extreme measure to take for weight loss.
They worry that 500 calories doesn't offer the vitamins and minerals healthy bodies need to stay healthy.
Others question the safety of injecting HCG over a long period of time (the hormone has been linked to certain hormone-driven cancers).
Some medical professionals even doubt whether HCG has any effect on the appetite at all. They suggest that anyone ingesting a mere 500 calories a day will lose weight. A Harvard physician on a recent episode of the Dr. Oz television show said 14 randomized controlled trials showed that participants given placebo lost just as much weight as participants taking HCG.
On that same Dr. Oz episode, one woman shared her bad experiences with the HCG Diet -- she fainted during her second week on the regimen, and her menstrual cycle stopped for four months after she quit.
Moss, who has recently upped her calorie intake to 750 and still continues to lose weight, doesn't care what the critics say.
"I don't know why it works. I don't know how it works. I just know it works," says Moss, who didn't tell her friends, kids or husband when she first signed up for the diet.
Within a few days on it, she says her once-ravenous appetite (she could down a whole cheesecake and a whole loaf of bread) was soon satisfied with a few meagre ounces of protein and a vegetable for lunch and dinner.
"This drug has given me the power to say no, for whatever reason. I'm not a medical doctor. I don't get it," says Moss, who got over her fear of needles shortly after giving herself her first injection.
Chubaty, a family physician, brought the diet to the city a few months ago. The Winnipeg doctor -- who also practises in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- says over the past five years, he's administered HCG for weight loss to more than 4,000 patients in the United States.
He says none have had serious side effects.
Here in Winnipeg, about 10 patients follow the diet under his care. (He administers the diet out of an office at Tache Pharmacy -- separate, he says, from his family practice).
He also offers oral HCG drops for patients who are afraid of needles, though he says injections provide the "best bang for your buck" considering they are the same price.
According to Health Canada, oral HCG has not been "authorized" in Canada.
HCG -- even in its injectable form -- is not covered under insurance plans.
Chubaty charges patients $400 for a six-week diet plan. The price drops to $200 for repeated cycles after that.
In addition, the prescription costs $100 for an eight-week supply.
Chubaty grew up in Winnipeg's North End, moved to Arizona in the 1980s and recently came back to his hometown to practise part time. He says he's selective about who he allows to go on his diet
He says patients should be cancer-free for at least 10 years before they try the HCG Diet. For patients who have less than 30 pounds to lose, "we try to steer them away from it."
He also warns that patients need to disclose "underlying" problems such as migraine headaches or colitis, because the HCG Diet may exacerbate such ailments. Nevertheless, he says "that's very rare."
Chubaty says the minor side effects a healthy patient may feel on the weight-loss plan are worth the results.
"If there's any slight chance that you're going to be off a little bit, you're going to be much healthier six to 12 weeks from now, when you shed 50 pounds, than you were worrying about your nutrition," he says during a phone interview.
"People come in overweight because they are over-nutritioned, not under-nutritioned."
He's aware of his critics.
"Whenever anything new comes out, there are always going to be the naysayers in medicine," says Chubaty. "You've got to be quite outside the box. It's there. It's safe.
"The worst thing that can happen is you're going to waste your money and not lose any weight."
Health Canada spokeman Gary Holub says using HCG injections for anything other than fertility treatment would be considered "off-label" use.
He says Health Canada has a number of concerns about using HCG as a diet aid.
In an email to the Free Press, Holub writes, "When used to treat a condition for which it is not indicated, such as weight loss, Human Chorionic Gonatrophin could cause a number of serious side-effects. In women, this could include painful cysts occurring as the result of over-stimulation of the ovaries."
Holub also says that each province's College of Physicians and Surgeons regulates the off-label use of drugs, not Health Canada.
Dr. Anna Ziomek, assistant registrar of Manitoba's College of Physicians and Surgeons, says that her organization was not aware of the HCG Diet or that a local physician is administering it.
She says physicians do not have to approve the off-label use of drugs with the College.
"What we expect physicians to do is to have the skilled knowledge and judgment to do the things that they are doing," says Ziomek, who practises emergency medicine.
"Our position on alternative therapy is that if physicians want to participate in that, it's fine to do so as long as a patient is understanding that this isn't the usual use," says Ziomek.
She says she doubts the diet would work in the long term because most people would find the low-calorie regimen too difficult to maintain over the long haul.
"I don't think there would be many dietitians or nutritionists who would support the patient doing this with the long-term goal of losing weight and maintaining a healthier weight."
Moss feels that her situation proves otherwise.
She skipped a few doses of HCG last weekend during a trip to Minneapolis and came back a couple of pounds lighter.
Her eyes well up with tears as she recalls the moment -- shortly before she went on the HCG Diet -- when she tried on a beautiful nightie one of her best lingerie suppliers gave her as a gift.
She didn't like what she saw.
"I looked at myself, and I was hideous," says Moss. "I've never felt lower than that point. I couldn't accept that I looked this bad in product that I sell all the time."
Today, Moss loves what she sees in the mirror when she slips on the same nightgown.
"I look great in it. It does everything it's supposed to do, and more."
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HCG DIET FACTS
The diet: Ingest 500 calories daily and inject HCG.
HCG: A hormone produced by women during pregnancy to help nourish the growing fetus. Health Canada has approved the drug for women undergoing fertility treatments.
Who's promoting it: Local physician Dr. Roman Chubaty, who prescribes injectable HCG to patients who want to lose weight.
The diet's founder: Dr. Albert Simeon invented the diet in the 1950s; the English endocrinologist used the hormone HCG to treat boys who had delayed-onset puberty -- the HCG helped them develop their sexual characteristics; he noticed it also helped them lose weight.
The controversy: People on the diet say it works. Critics say it could be dangerous.
Safety concerns: As of June, Health Canada had received 45 adverse-effects reports suspected to be linked to HCG. HCG products are available online, but Health Canada warns that a product without a drug identification number (DIN) has not been evaluated or approved by the federal agency.