Let’s face it. People will do literally anything to lose weight, even at the cost of their own health — and sometimes life.
We try to shy away from such topics because it’s best not to encourage people in activities which can be harmful to themselves, or others. However, there seems to be an unusual, growing interest in tapeworms and weight loss. We felt that we should explore it.
What is a tapeworm?
A tapeworm is a lengthy, segmented, parasitic worm-like organism that lives most of its life inside a host animal. They have a head, called the scolex, with a mouth of hooked appendages that make it easy to latch onto its host’s intestinal wall. Below the head, a tapeworm’s neck will grow the segments that make up the rest of the worm.
A mature tapeworm can reach 20 feet in length in a large host, winding down into its small intestine. The tail segments can break off and are passed out of the body with excrement. This is also in part, how they reproduce. The small segments will contain the eggs which will be inadvertently picked up by a new host, and the cycle continues on.
In humans, tapeworms are most frequently picked up by swimming in lakes or rivers, and accidentally ingesting a small amount of water. However, they can also be picked up by eating undercooked meat, like beef, pork, or fish. Unfortunately, tapeworm infestation will often show very few symptoms, and a person can develop serious problems down the road if it’s left to fester.
Will eating a tapeworm cause me to lose weight?With some reservations, probably.
While weight loss is indeed a possible side-effect of being a host to a tapeworm, it’s not 100% certain that you will experience that particular side effect.
It’s important to note that there are also some serious downsides and risks associated with even the most benign beef tapeworm. These including serious abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and a general feeling of malaise.
There is also the possibility of severe malnutrition. A fish tapeworm, for example, will consume most of your vitamin B-12, which will lead to anemia. There is also a chance of ascites, which is a fluid buildup in your gut, and causes severe swelling. That would certainly be the opposite of the intended effect.
How does a tapeworm contribute to weight loss?
Tapeworms secrete proteins in your intestines that make digestion of food much less efficient. With a less efficient digestive system, you will be able to consume more calories since the tapeworm is also consuming them for its own growth. Some scientists estimate that those infected with a single tapeworm can lose one or two pounds a week.
Is the risk worth it?
Absolutely not. In addition to the risks listed above, other complications can occur. For instance, tapeworm eggs can get sidetracked on their way out of your body. By entering your bloodstream, they can travel to other organs and hatch in unintended places.
Your heart, liver, lungs and even your brain are all at risk. If a tapeworm egg were to hatch in an one of those organs, you face the very real risk of death. Fortunately, importation and sale of tapeworm eggs is illegal in the United States. This is definitely one “diet fad” that should not be attempted or considered by anyone.
Update: An astute reader has given us a heads up on an interesting but sad news tidbit. A 41-year-old man in Columbia was feeling ill for several months and eventually decided to go to the hospital to get checked out. He was found to have a mass of cells growing inside his lungs. At first they thought the man had lung cancer, but after a biopsy and CT scan, it turned out the cells weren’t human cells. The cells were indeed cancerous, but the cells themselves were too small to be human. After some research, they deduced the cells to be from a tapeworm the man had. The tapeworm had grown so large that its own cells began to mutate and become cancerous. Bits of this cancerous material broke off and traveled throughout the man’s body giving him cancer.
Ph.D., Julu Bhatnagar, Atis Muehlenbachs, M.D. Malignant Transformation of Hymenolepis nana in a Human Host N Engl J Med. 11/2015
“Tapeworm“. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2006.
Schantz, Peter M. “Tapeworms” Gastroenterology Clinics of North America. Vol.25, iss.3 (2005).
“Tapeworm infections“, Parasitic infections, Merck.