Yes, There is a Tapeworm Diet. No, You Should Not Try It!Nutrition
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
Have you ever heard about the Victorian Tapeworm Diet? This diet involves swallowing a parasite (a potentially disease-causing organism). It reportedly gained popularity in the early 1900s among Victorian women who were put under immense pressure to be thin, wear tight corsets and “look perfect.”
“The idea is simple, and gross. You take a pill containing a tapeworm egg. Once hatched, the parasite grows inside of the host, ingesting part of whatever the host eats. In theory, this enables the dieter to simultaneously lose weight and eat without worrying about calorie intake,” according to one source.
While the possibility of being able to eat whatever you want and still lose weight may sound appealing, tapeworms may cause major harm to the host.
The first thing to know is that the term “tapeworm” actually refers to several different types of parasites that can make their home in the human intestine for a very long time – sometimes for 20 years! These parasites are considered to be in the taxonomic class of flatworms called Cestoda, and more than 1,000 species have been identified.
They are categorized by where they live before their eggs infect their human host via consumption of raw or undercooked meat, animal feces or contaminated water. Tapeworms may be found in pork, beef, fish and dog.
Here are some different types of tapeworms:
- Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm)
- Taenia solium (pork tapeworm)
- Taenia asiatica (Asian tapeworm, also called Asian fish tapeworm)
These species of tapeworms cause the parasitic infection taeniasis.
Tapeworms are equal-opportunity parasites that show absolutely no preference for gender, ethnicity or age. With that said, children are more prone to getting them since they usually are not all that careful with hand-washing and personal hygiene, both of which can limit the spread and infection with the parasite.
Tapeworms can grow very long in a host and interfere with proper organ function. In this case, doctors removed a six-foot long tapeworm from a man's intestine. Several sources even say that tapeworms can grow to 30 feet or even 80 feet inside a host! Tapeworms may even cause epilepsy, meningitis and dementia.
Unless you deliberately swallow some tapeworm eggs (as someone following the tapeworm diet would do), if you have a tapeworm you may not even know it since most people have no symptoms. Symptoms of having tapeworms usually include:
- Being tired all the time or general weakness
- Gastrointestinal distress such as stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- Weight loss without going on a diet or changing your exercise routine
- Sleeping difficulties
- Seeing tapeworm eggs, larvae or segments from the tapeworm’s body in your stool
Taeniasis can develop into cysticercosis, which is an infection of the tissue. Cysticercosis is caused by larval cysts of the pork tapeworm. “These larval cysts infect brain, muscle, or other tissue, and are a major cause of adult onset seizures in most low-income countries. A person gets cysticercosis by swallowing eggs found in the feces of a person who has an intestinal tapeworm. People living in the same household with someone who has a tapeworm have a much higher risk of getting cysticercosis than people who don’t,” reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Recently, an 18-year-old boy in India died of neurocysticercosis, when cysticercosis affects the brain and spinal cord. You can read more about this tragic incident here.
“Neurocysticercosis is a leading cause of adult onset epilepsy worldwide. It is costly to diagnose and treat but entirely preventable,” reports the CDC.
“There are an estimated 1,000 new hospitalizations for neurocysticercosis in the United States each year. Cases are most frequently reported in New York, California, Texas, Oregon, and Illinois. Additionally, neurocysticercosis creates a tremendous economic burden. In a recent study, the average charge of hospitalization due to neurocysticercosis was $37,600, with the most common form of payment being Medicaid (43.9%). Currently, there is little being done to monitor prevent, or identify and treat neurocysticercosis.”
I think what you can gather from all of this information about tapeworms is that it would be absolutely crazy and a major risk to your health to intentionally swallow a pill containing a tapeworm egg, in an attempt to lose weight.
But the risks have not stopped some people.
Back in 2013, a woman in Iowa swallowed a tapeworm she reportedly bought of the internet. After swallowing the pill that contained the tapeworm, she told her doctor what she had done.
“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,” according to this news report discussing the woman in Iowa.
This report from 2010 discusses how dieters in Hong Kong were swallowing tapeworms to lose weight. According to the report, the worms can lay up to 200,000 more eggs a day inside the body!
Dr. Michael Mosley, who is known for “experimenting on himself,” ingested a tapeworm to see if it was worth the “weight loss benefits,” according to this 2014 Medical Daily report.
“Mosley traveled to Kenya in order to pick up the parasites, which came from cysts on a cow’s tongue that contained tapeworm eggs. After ingesting the tapeworm, Mosley tracked his progress for about six weeks. He kept a food diary in which he noted any changes in his behavior or physical appearance. Contrary to what some may believe about the tapeworm diet, Mosley said he found himself craving carbohydrates and sugars.”
It makes sense that you may crave carbs and sugar, considering a parasite is invading your body and depleting your energy stores.
He actually gained two pounds from this experiment and took medication to rid his body of the tapeworm.
You are more likely to become malnourished, not slender and “pretty to look at.”
“One tapeworm can't absorb enough food and nutrients to make a big difference in weight, according to scientific research. But the parasite can cause anemia and malnutrition,” according to one source.
Malnutrition, in my opinion, is one of the greatest risks of ingesting a tapeworm -- especially a deficiency in vitamin B12. As mentioned, tapeworms can block your intestines and take up space that other organs need. This can make it harder for these organs to do their jobs in keeping you healthy.
Your bodies need to absorb and efficiently use nutrients, such as water, vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins, in order to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.
So if you suspect you have a tapeworm, it’s important to see a competent healthcare professional as soon as possible. Diagnostic tests for tapeworms include blood tests to look for antibodies caused by the tapeworm infection, imaging scans such as an MRI or X-Ray, stool tests to look for eggs and larvae and organ tests to make sure your vital organs are functioning properly. The good news is that with the proper treatment, usually oral medication, tapeworms are more than 95 percent curable.
How to be Proactive
The first thing you need to know is that if you’re trying to get to a healthy weight, swallowing a tapeworm is not the way to do it. There are many ways, including exercising and eating healthily, to lose weight in a healthy way and then keep it off. This is a great goal since being overweight puts you at risk for a wide variety of health problems and diseases, from joint stress to diabetes and from cardiovascular disease to kidney disease. You can find a wealth of information about dieting and weight management on the pH website.
There are several things you can do to protect yourself and your family from a tapeworm infection. These include:
- Making sure to cook all meats and fish to internal temperatures recommended by the CDC of 145 degrees F for pork and other meats, and 160 degrees F for ground meat (you can also freeze meat and fish for seven days, which is effective for killing eggs and larvae)
- Boil, disinfect or drink bottled water if you are not sure about the water’s potability
- Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands (and teach your children to do so) after using the bathroom, gardening or being around farm animals (or any other animals) and before eating
- Regularly clean and disinfect food preparation surfaces in your kitchen and be sure to wash your hands after handling raw meats and fish
- Make sure your dog is treated for tapeworms as indicated by your veterinarian, and never feed your pet raw meat or fish
Since tapeworms literally “share” the nutrients you are getting from your food, if you or anyone in your family has been treated for tapeworms you should get a nutrient test to see what your body may be lacking. Getting this test is also a good idea in general, especially if you are dieting.
To learn about specific nutritional deficiencies that may be preventing you from achieving your weight loss goals, read here.
Enjoy your healthy life!
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.