Illustration by Johann Gottfried Brakeman, 1830
On a recent episode of her family's TV show, Khloe Kardashian publicly admitted to wanting to put a tapeworm inside herself. Her half-sister Kylie Jenner balked at the idea, to which Kardashian replied, "Do you know how skinny you get? I googled it to see if I could really have one."If that conversation wasn't purely made-for-TV and she actually searched for that sort of information, she probably would have found Tapewormeggs.com, a shady-looking Russian website that I would expect to see in a comedy sketch about buying a tapeworm. "PLAY PRETTY GOOD JOKE ON FRIENDS," it suggests. The worms sold there cost $34 and come with instructions: "Use promptly on arrival by applying to salad or uncooked food."
The motivation behind putting a parasite inside you on purpose (a depressingly common scheme) is that it will live inside your digestive tract and gobble up calories from the cheeseburgers and cake you keep eating, but saying a tapeworm will help you lose weight is like saying a knife wound in your throat will ease your sleep apnea—it might have the intended effect, but it's also a terrible, terrible idea.In 2012, Io9 dug up a horrific case of an Indian woman vomiting out a pair of tapeworms. Not only are the little critters gross, they can cause malnutrition and anemia—and, according to parasitologist and leading tapeworm researcher, Dr. Ana Flisser, they won't even guarantee you lose weight."That's totally, fully wrong," she told me. There are a number of different sorts of tapeworms, including two kinds found in livestock that seem to have evolved to live in the human digestive system: one typically found in pigs, and one typically found in cows. If the Russian website is offering to send you the eggs of the one found in cows, she said, you can't even get a tapeworm that way—the eggs would die off in transit. As for the one found in pigs, she explained, "if you eat it with a salad, you will get cysticercosis."Cysticercosis is just an absolute nightmare—that's when immature tapeworms infect the tissue of parts of your body other than your digestive tract. Often, they get into your brain and form cysts. That can cause seizures, eye damage, cognitive defects, and fluid around your brain, Flisser said.
An old article in The Veterinary Record describes other disgusting symptoms, including something called "discharge of proglottids," which is described as "a sensation in the rectum, followed by a discharge of the segments through the anus, and then a crawling sensation in the perianal region." The article details a case study in which a minister "had to bring his sermon abruptly to a close when 5 feet of tapeworm segments slipped down one of his trouser legs." The article goes on to note that only 21 percent of tapeworm patients lost weight.Flisser told me it's "very difficult to find" the kind of livestock-borne tapeworm that lives in your intestine and helps you lose weight (you'd have to eat fresh raw steak, basically). Tapeworms found in fish—which are usually asymptomatic—can also cause weight loss, but that's only in very severe cases, and comes with other nasty complications. A third variety of tapeworm, called Hymenolepis, in some cases can help you lose weight in a terrible, terrible way: It gives you diarrhea.Giving oneself diarrhea to lose weight is a symptom of an eating disorder, and doing so can be deadly. Googling it took me to some very unsettling message boards where I found that one way people accomplish this is by eating a bunch of probiotic sour milk products like Activia since they're full of bacteria.Those sorts of weight-loss methods are extremely dangerous, and if you're thinking about them you should look for help. And if, like Khloe Kardashian, you're considering the tapeworm diet, you should think about taking up jogging instead.Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.