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Published On: Fri, Aug 16th, 2013

Iowa’s ‘Top Doc’ warns about Tapeworm Diet: What are the risks?

It has been reported that the medical director for the Iowa Department of Public Health sent a warning against the “tapeworm diet” in her weekly email to public health workers.

In the email, Dr. Patricia Quinlisk recounted a recent incident:

A physician sought the department’s help for a patient who said she’d swallowed a tapeworm she’d bought over the Internet. The woman was hoping the parasite would help her lose weight.

Quinlisk says hucksters sold tapeworm eggs in pill form as a weight-loss aid a century ago. She says ingesting them “is extremely risky and can cause a wide range of undesirable side effects, including rare deaths.”

Well it’s not the first time it’s been heard of in this country. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were “snake oil” salesmen who would travel town to town selling their magic potion for weight loss to the women of the town. Was it truly tapeworm they were selling? Hard to tell but it’s possible.

Tapeworm adWhat are the risks of ingesting tapeworm larvae?

Well it’s really a crap shoot (no pun intended). If indeed you do ingest the tapeworm, Taenia saginata also known as the beef tapeworm (this is the tapeworm that is marketed on the internet) is usually an asymptomatic infection.

If symptoms are seen they are generally mild; nausea, weakness, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, diarrhea and inadequate absorption of nutrition from food.

However, there is the chance where segments of the worm (proglottids) can migrate and cause appendicitis and cholangitis (bile duct obstruction).

The irony is there is no guarantee that there will be weight loss. One website sells this for $2000! And since it’s illegal in the U.S., you need to travel to Mexico.

Another more severe risk is the ingestion of a more pathogenic tapeworm. Taenia solium is a tapeworm that people get from eating raw or undercooked “measly pork”. The pork meat has cysticerci (the larval stage) which in the human intestine mature to an adult tapeworm. Here the tapeworm attaches to the intestine and produces thousands of eggs.

Human cysticercosis occurs either by the direct transfer of Taenia solium eggs from the feces of people harboring an adult worm to their own mouth (autoinfection) or to the mouth of another individual, or indirectly by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the eggs.

When the person ingests the eggs, the embryo escape from the shell and penetrates the intestinal wall, gets into the blood vessels, where they spread to muscle, or more seriously, the eyes, heart or brain.

adult Taenia saginata tapeworm Image/CDC

adult Taenia saginata tapeworm
Image/CDC

The severity of cysticercosis depends on which organs are infected and the number of cysticerci. An infection consisting of a few small cysticerci in the liver or muscles would likely result in no obvious disease and go unnoticed.

Those that form in voluntary muscle tend to be asymptomatic, but may cause some pain. On the other hand, a few cysticerci, if located in a particularly “sensitive” area of the body, might result in irreparable damage.

For instance, a cysticercus in the eye might lead to blindness, or a cysticercus in the brain (neurocysticercosis) could lead to traumatic neurological damage, epileptic seizures or brain swelling that can kill.

This “diet” has the potential of some real adverse effects. There are many questionable diets out on the market but this one really makes me wonder. Whatever happened to cutting down on your calories and getting some exercise?

I recall an episode of the Tyra Banks Show a few years ago where the main topic was the fad diet, “The Tapeworm Diet”.

Unbelievably, two women guests stated they were willing to ingest tapeworm to lose weight. I remember thinking, “Are you serious?” You would think the “gross factor” would be enough to get people to avoid such a foolish decision.

After the airing of the show back then, one very wise person commented on Ms. Banks website:

“Hi Tyra, I love your show, but had a bone to pick with some of your guests. I saw your show today about the tape worm diet and I thought it was absolutely ridiculous and stupid about what those women were willing to do in order to be thinner. The one thing that got me was they said they wanted to loose weight in a “natural” way….um duh, you can’t get much more natural than healthy eating and exercise! plus good food and activity is good for you and contributes to your health, which is what they should be striving for not to be skinny for the sake of being skinny.”

For more infectious disease news and information, visit and “like” the Infectious Disease News Facebook page

Taenia egg Image/CDC

Taenia egg
Image/CDC

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About the Author

- Writer, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of The Global Dispatch. Robert has been covering news in the areas of health, world news and politics for a variety of online news sources. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the website, Outbreak News Today and hosts the podcast, Outbreak News Interviews on iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify Robert is politically Independent and a born again Christian Follow @bactiman63

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