Aug. 16, 2013 at 1:25 PM ET
An Iowa woman recently discovered something worse than being overweight: swallowing a parasitic worm in order to drop a few pounds.
The woman went to her doctor and admitted she’d bought a tapeworm off the Internet and swallowed it, says Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health. The woman's doctor, understandably, wasn’t sure of what to do in such a situation, and so he contacted the state’s public health department for advice. This week, Quinlisk relayed a warning and treatment advice in her weekly email to state public health workers.
“Ingesting tapeworms is extremely risky and can cause a wide range of undesirable side effects, including rare deaths,” Quinlisk wrote in the email, as the Des Moines Register reported Friday. “Those desiring to lose weight are advised to stick with proven weight loss methods — consuming fewer calories and increasing physical activity.”
There are a few different kinds of tapeworms, but it’s the beef tapeworm, or Taenia saginata, that is usually used in these sorts of quick weight-loss schemes, Quinlisk says. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advertisements touted “easy to swallow,” “sanitized tape worms” as a weapon against fat – “the ENEMY that is shortening your life,” as one vintage ad recently showcased by the National Women’s History Museum's website reads.
More recently, reports surfaced that dieters in Hong Kong were swallowing tapeworms to lose weight. And in 2009, Tyra Banks did an episode of her talk show in which she interviewed women who said they would be willing to swallow a tapeworm if it really meant they could easily drop a few pounds.
Quinlisk says that the capsules sold in the past by snake oil hucksters, and online today, likely contain the microscopic head of a Taenia saginata.
“When people would order from snake oil medicine kinds of people a weight loss pill, it would be the head of a Taenia saginata … and it would develop into a 30-foot-long tapeworm in your body,” Quinlisk says. “The worm would get into your gut – it’s got little hooks on the head – and it would grab onto your intestine and start growing.”
And, technically, this parasitic infection, called taeniasis, does cause weight loss.
“Tapeworms will cause you to lose weight because you have this huge worm in your intestines eating your food,” Quinlisk says.
At a dangerous, disgusting cost. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include “weight loss” and “loss of appetite” in its list of the symptoms of taeniasis – a list also including abdominal pain and upset stomach. Quinlisk adds that this could kill you.
Also from the CDC: “The most visible sign of taeniasis is the active passing of proglottids (tapeworm segments) through the anus and in the feces. In rare cases, tapeworm segments become lodged in the appendix, or the bile and pancreatic ducts.”
To get the parasite out of a person's body, doctors will usually prescribe an anti-worm medication like praziquantel or niclosamide, which force all the muscles in the worm's body to contract, killing it. The tapeworm will then harmlessly pass through the intestines and out of the body.
Years ago, Quinlisk volunteered for the Peace Corps and spent time in Nepal, where she would see people suffering from tapeworms they swallowed while eating undercooked, infested meat. The tapeworms made these Nepalese Quinlisk saw very ill, robbing them of many nutrients their food would have otherwise provided for them.
“I can’t imagine anybody doing this on purpose,” she says.
Diet historian Susan Yager, "just cannot believe" people would use tapeworms to shed pounds. Yager, who studied the history of diets in America for her 2010 book, “The Hundred Year Diet: America’s Voracious Appetite for Losing Weight,” says if people used tapeworms as a weight loss method, either now or 100 years ago, it’s likely a very small number. The CDC, for example, says that the number of new tapeworm cases is probably fewer than 1,000 – and many of those cases may be from undercooked beef or pork.
“Probably, some people have done it. I have no question in my mind that people have done everything in the world to try to lose weight,” Yager says. “But I don’t think it was ever widespread."
The only other diet that even halfway compares to the over-the-top nature of the tapeworm diet, Yager says, might be the hCG diet, in which dieters inject themselves with a hormone found in the urine of pregnant women. The hCG diet was popular in the 1960s and ‘70s and experienced a resurgence in recent years.
Then there's “absolute fasting.” Proponents of this one say you can live your life in exactly the way you always have; you just don’t get to eat any more, ever again, Yager says.
It’s easy to make light of extreme dieting strategies, but if a person is so desperate to lose weight they're tempted to try something as horrific as inviting a 30-foot parasitic worm to take up residence inside their intestines -- well, that could be a sign that there's a bigger issue happening here, says New York City registered dietitian Elisa Zied.
“I think that’s a red flag -- that they would be willing to sacrifice their health in order to lose weight,” says Zied, who urges anyone considering an extreme weight-loss plan to contact someone with a background in science, like a dietitian or nutritionist, or, as a first step, to visit a reputable website like eatright.org.
“If you get to the point of desperation where you will try anything, you need to just get back to the basics and really think about what’s going on in your life, and how you’re eating and how you’re being physically active,” she says.