WELL, THANK U

Inside the Lasting Legacy of Tapeworm Diets

What's up with our ongoing cultural fascination with consuming parasites for weight loss?
A tapeworm inside a human intestine.  Shutterstock 

Well, Thank u is a new column interrogating the myths and misinformation around health and wellness trends.

They live inside your intestines, absorb your nutrients, and lay hundreds of thousands of eggs while you shed weight. Is it just me, or does having a tapeworm inside you sound kind of… not that bad?

Firstly, the worm does the work. The idea is that your tapeworm eats whatever you’re eating. That’s right— your worm. Just picture the little guy inside you, hoovering up your extra calories as you eat your way through your back catalogue of heartbreak and childhood wounds.

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Usually, tapeworms end up inside your body by accident. Like, if you consume uncooked meat. Or faeces. As strongly as I care about being as thin as an iPad Air by the end of the 2017-2018 financial year, I’m not going to eat literal shit. There must be another way.

The Victorians may have been onto something. Let’s walk down the rat-riddled cobblestone streets of London circa 1830 to 1900, when we first see tapeworms linked to weight loss. The beauty ideal at the time—a pallid complexion , dilated pupils, and a frail physique—was based on the appearance of tuberculosis sufferers, so along with bathing in ammonia and wearing organ-crushing corsets, some women swallowed tapeworm pills. The pills contained larvae, which would hatch inside the body and thus begin the weight loss process.

As for getting rid of the worms once they’d done their job, according to author Terry Deary in his book Horrible Histories: Vile Victorians, one Dr Meyers would insert cylinders stuffed with food into the digestive tract. He’d then instruct patients not to eat for a few days, so the tapeworms, hungry, would be lured into the traps. Lots of his patients choked to death. Others would “coax” the worm out by placing a pail of milk under the anus.

A little later, reports about the tapeworm diet began to appear in America. In 1912, a dispatch from Illinois detailed a wealthy woman who obtained “miracle diet pills” only to realise later that they contained these parasites of ill repute. In the 1920s, when the beauty ideal demanded a slender, curveless frame, tapeworm diet pills popped up once more. And according to Laura Hillenbrand’s book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, some jockeys in the 1930s utilised tapeworms to maintain a weight optimised for the racetrack.

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A tapeworm head up close. Shuttesrtock

Aside from anecdotal recounts, however, there’s hardly any evidence to suggest that tapeworms ever wriggled into mainstream diet products at any time. Despite their history though, shrouded as it is in myth and urban legend, tapeworm diets have left a lasting legacy. Tyra Banks talked about them on her show in 2009; Kourtney Kardashian joked about wanting to buy one in 2015; and, over the last decade, gruesome stories of people purposefully consuming tapeworms for weight loss have caught the internet’s attention. Take this woman from Iowa, who in 2013 consumed tapeworm pills for weight loss, resulting in an official warning from the state’s department of public health.

Tapeworms generally cause only minor symptoms that are easily treated, but they can grow up to nine metres and cause life threatening issues like meningitis, epilepsy, and dementia. Earlier this year Dr Kenny Banh, an emergency physician at the University of California, treated a 30-year-old man who arrived at ER holding a plastic bag. Inside was a cardboard toilet roll with a dead tapeworm over 1.6 metres in length wrapped around it, freshly extracted during an episode of bloody diarrhoea. It’s thought that the man contracted the tapeworm from eating sashimi.

As you might expect, Dr Banh does not recommend purposefully ingesting a tapeworm for weight loss. “While on the periphery of extreme diet methods, it has never been studied in a controlled setting,” he tells VICE. “What we do know is that many people develop side-effects from tapeworm infestations including abdominal cramping and diarrhoea, like my patient, and in rare cases obstruction of the bowel, appendix or bile duct, which becomes a surgical emergency.”

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Australia's Department of Health also warns against using tapeworms for weight loss purposes. “This is not a ‘diet.’ The term ‘diet’ relates to the kinds of food a person habitually eats,” a spokesperson says. “Consumption of tapeworm eggs is dangerous and can lead to cysts in tissues or organs and cause life-threatening damage.”

A whale tapeworm from a dead humpback whale. Whale tapeworms can reach over 30 metres in length. Image via Shutterstock

Tapeworm diet pills are illegal in Australia, so it’s actually quite hard to buy one of these diet-world legends. For a live specimen to be imported, it must first be listed as an approved species on the Live Import List. Tapeworm eggs are not on this list.

There are a couple of websites out there purportedly selling tapeworm diet pills. If the potential health implications aren’t enough of a red flag, the Comic Sans font and 1998 Angel Fire aesthetic might be. “Tapeworm has been a natural part of human intestinal flora for millions of years, protecting from obesity and stimulating immunity,” reads one site, which fails to actually provide a link to purchase.

Aside from dubious online vendors, a "worm clinic" in Mexico called Worm Therapy has been tied to weight loss in the past. While weight loss is not explicitly mentioned on their website, Elizabeth Tucker, an academic who has researched diet folklore, called clinic founder Garin Aglietti about this for 2013 book Folk Culture in the Digital Age.

“How much weight do you want to lose?” Aglietti asked. “About fifteen pounds [6.8 kilos],” Tucker responded. Aglietti then explained Tucker could come to the clinic in Tijuana for treatment. She’d be in in the morning and out by the afternoon, and pay USD$1,500 to $1,800 for one or two organisms, which he said are cultivated in cattle.

At the time of writing, Worm Therapy had not responded to VICE’s emails for comment. It seems that any reference to weight loss treatments have been replaced by more medical-sounding language: Something called “heleminth induced immune modulation,” where hookworm and whipworm cysts are swallowed under supervision.

“People with diseases of immune dysregulation face a host of challenges which are inadequately represented in the established medical climate,” Worm Therapy's website states. “Extensive research and clinical trials have demonstrated that the introduction of small doses of intestinal worms may be effective in the treatment of asthma, allergies, and some autoimmune conditions.” Recent articles detail Aglietti and the clinic’s involvement in this experimental practice of treating autoimmune disease with intestinal worms.

Overall, tapeworm diets are veiled in misinformation, as well as health and legal risks. Yet, we remain fascinated by the idea of them. “Like tape measures, tapeworms remind us of society's standards for ideal weight. Dieters try to eat less and get thin, but tapeworms want to eat all they can; in doing so, they represent rebellion against societal restrictions on self-satisfaction,” Elizabeth Tucker tells VICE.

While purposefully consuming something that could kill you to lose weight is objectively a bad idea, we have to acknowledge that the recurring legend of the tapeworm diet is wrapped up in a Western history of both deriding female vanity and outcasting the overweight. As one newspaper ad from the 1920s boasts, the tapeworm diet requires "no danger, no diet, no exercise." Thankfully, almost a century later, we mostly know better.