For years now I have been reading internet rumors suggesting that at one time (usually between 1900 and 1920) or even lately, people have deliberately infected themselves with tapeworms in order to lose weight. Indeed a Google search for "tapeworm diet" returns a lot of "hits" but none of them offers more than mere conjecture. The famous debunking website called "Snopes.com" say that it is unable to determine if the rumors are (or were) true.
One thing is certain however. A lot of people have HEARD about tapeworms for weight loss and many of my patients ask me if the practice ever really existed. With these questions in mind, I'll do my best to address what we know about the infamous "tapeworm diet".
Tapeworms were, at one time, a scourge of mankind. People became infected with tapeworms either from poor hygiene or from eating beef, pork or fish that contained unkilled tapeworm eggs. Once the eggs entered the human gut, they would hatch and a living tapeworm would quickly attach itself to the wall of the gut like a leech. The head of the worm would literally suck nutrient-rich blood and lymphatic fluid as well as feces from the intestine and its wall. Some mature tapeworms could grow to over 20 feet in length and often people were infected with many worms at one time. Because these worms were so effective at stealing nutrients from the people they infected, their poor hosts would surely lose weight... sometimes a lot of weight. Tapeworms are truly revolting and dangerous. And yes, they DO cause weight loss.
The rumors suggest that tapeworm eggs (or products that at least claimed to contain tapeworm eggs) were once sold for weight loss. Since a single egg is very small, almost microscopic, it could easily be packed into a small pill or a sugar cube. All that the victim err "patient" would have to do is swallow the thing and then, assuming the egg was alive and managed to attach, a full-sized adult tapeworm would follow within weeks. And "better" still, since tapeworms are true hermaphrodites (one worm has both male and female sex organs and can reproduce on its own), one worm would eventually become many worms. Weight loss was sure to follow.
Is it safe to use a gun to blow your nose? No, tapeworm infection is not safe. Many serious and even fatal complications can arise. These include perforation of a blood vessel followed by death from blood loss, fatal allergic reactions to the worm's body and many other not-so-wonderful and nasty problems. So just on the remotest off-chance that somebody out there (not one of MY patients of course) but somebody far, far away should ever have even the slightest inkling to consider popping a tapeworm egg...DON'T. Don't be stupid.
Furthermore the whole idea is revolting and if you don't believe me, just take a look at a few photos on the internet.
The Difference Between a Tapeworm and a Flatworm
Today (August 4, 2014) I received a polite email from and entomologist who informed me that a photo I had posted here was not of a tapeworm but was in fact a flatworm. He was correct. I have removed the photo and am in his debt.