Dieting, like many other things, falls on a spectrum. Toward the healthier end, you see a moderate decrease in calorie intake, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, and greater exercise. Venture into the depths of the other side, however, and you’ll find the sinister quick fixes that only stand to hurt your body. When one Iowa woman purchased a tapeworm on the Internet and ingested it to lose weight, she had effectively reached the other side.

Tapeworms For Sale

The woman, whose name hasn’t been released, went to her doctor to tell him about a tapeworm she had purchased on the Internet, and swallowed, in the hopes of losing weight. Evidenced by the doctor’s appeal to a higher source of authority at the Iowa Department of Public Health, the practice of swallowing a tapeworm as a diet strategy is one that modern medicine seldom encounters. The practice seems crudely archaic to many, and a contemporary case of it only serves to demonstrate how harmful it can really be.

“Ingesting tapeworms is extremely risky and can cause a wide range of undesirable side effects, including rare deaths,” wrote Department director, Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, as reported by the Des Moines Register. “Those desiring to lose weight are advised to stick with proven weight loss methods — consuming fewer calories and increasing physical activity.”

Quinlisk offered advice to the woman’s doctor on how to get rid of the tapeworm — she prescribed anti-worm medication — but soon realized the problem needed greater attention. She decided to issue a formal warning to state public health workers, advising them on the dangers of tapeworm use and how to dissuade people against the method.

The e-mail included forewarnings against the online purchase of tapeworms, which is illegal and can result in tremendous health problems as the parasite sinks the hooks on its head into the host’s intestinal wall. When food passes through the intestine, the tapeworm consumes it before the host’s body can absorb any nutrients. Indeed, the person will lose weight. But they will be markedly sicker and, most likely, look worse.

“You don’t get skinny, you get sort of a swollen belly and you don’t look well,” said Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC News chief medical editor. “So you may lose a few pounds, but the minute you take the medicine to kill the tapeworm, guess what? You go right back to who you are. So this is one of the damned dumbest things I’ve ever heard.”

Getting To Know The Tapeworm

Intestinal parasites like the tapeworm, which can grow as long as 30 feet, have the potential to break apart in the body. The fragmented pieces can then grow independent of the main body and pierce through the intestinal wall, dispersing throughout the host’s organs, up to the eyes and brain, potentially killing the host.

Quinlisk said the most commonly ingested type of tapeworm, and the one consumed by the Iowa woman, is the microscopic head of a Taenia saginata, a beef tapeworm that comes in capsule form. This is the same species of tapeworm found in raw or undercooked beef, hence the name. Others include Taenia solium (pork tapeworm), and Taenia asiatica (Asian tapeworm). The resulting infection from these tapeworms is called taeniasis, and it exhibits few to no symptoms.

However, “the most visible sign of taeniasis is the active passing of proglottids (tapeworm segments) through the anus and in the feces. In rare cases, tapeworm segments become lodged in the appendix, or the bile and pancreatic ducts,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Treatment for the tapeworm, in line with Quinlisk’s prescription, comes as anti-worm medication that the host ingests. Typically either praziquantel or niclosamide, the drug causes each of the tapeworm’s muscles to constrict, killing it, at which point it can easily pass through the person’s body.

In the end, ingesting a tapeworm may cause a slight drop in weight, but the long-term effects of a tapeworm diet — and many quick fix diets — is an even faster spike back up. Snyderman emphasized the virtue of patience in maintaining a healthy diet.

“You can do the cabbage soup diet, you can do the starvation diet, you can do the protein only diet. But at some point in your life you have to go back to normal,” she said. “Unless you learn what that normal is for you, you’re not going to be successful.”