Horrors of the “Tapeworm Diet”

Aug 21, 2013 at 12:44 PM ET

When a doctor in Iowa recently discovered that one of her patients had deliberately ingested a tapeworm to lose weight and claimed she “bought it on the internet,” I thought, Holy shit, how can I get one for the office?

I decided to do some digging, using our deep-web harvesting tool to find out what the current market for edible tapeworms looks like. As it turns out, there continues to be interest in “tapeworm pills” and fancy worm clinics. But tapeworms are really, really hard to track down.

The tapeworm diet has been around for centuries, but DIY parasitic liposuction is just too delicious a topic to ignore. And apparently, loads of other dieters agree.

“I am very interested, where did u get them?” asks a user named Elizabeth in one diet blog’s comment section. “Where do you live how did you obtain it what is it called after you lost what you wanted who and what did they give you to get rid of them could you please email me regular way and not thru this site and is this for real?” another user named Stacia asks.

We reached out to some of these tapeworm-pursuers via email, but they didn’t respond. Go figure. 

Just in case you slept through high school biology class, tapeworms are long flatworms that live in our intestines. But they’re not supposed to wind up in our intestines. They normally get there accidentally if you eat undercooked meat. Or feces. And because they can perforate our intestinal linings, they can be incredibly dangerous, even lethal.

“Consumers have no idea what they are getting nor do they have safeguards to prevent serious health complications from ingesting unsterilized worms or eggs,” writes Ted Kallymer, editor of EveryDiet.org, in an e-mail.

Supermodel Tyra Banks once exposed the dangers of a tapeworm diet on her talk show back in 2009. But dieters hell-bent on shedding pounds weren’t fazed. “Experts” in diet forums tout them as an effective weight-loss strategy because they gobble up the food we swallow. “Guys I did this tapeworm diet a few years ago and it worked out good,” writes a user named Melvin Flax on EveryDiet’s “Tapeworm Diet” page. “I had to learn how to maintain a diet and eat right but I’m thin and great so I see nothing wrong with this.”

Elsewhere, women have reported that they’ve lost up to 60 pounds with the help of a tapeworm. And in as little as four months! It’s this purported success that has led to the outcry over how hard it is to find the critters online. Tapeworm-seekers point to a variety of tapeworm pills, but many of them, such as “Extractotape,” sound like total scams. Some actually are scams, like this one, highlighted on a business scam website and based near Las Vegas. Searches on Tor-friendly encrypted sites such as Atlantis, Silk Road and Black Market Reloaded yield no worms. And we even searched using two scientific names for tapeworms, Taenia saginata and Taenia solium. No dice.

Many tapeworm fiends on diet forums suggest that maybe dieters should hunt down tapeworms the old-fashioned way. “If you are so desperate to lose weight, I have a suggestion for you (besides ingesting parasites),” writes commenter known as Lazarus. “Eat feces! Feces are how tapeworms spread!”

Turns out the Internet may not be the way to go. The answer is probably Mexico.

Possessing tapeworms is illegal in the U.S., which is why there are two “helminthic therapy” clinics outside the country that practice worm therapy (therapy via “helminths,” or parasitic worms). WormTherapy, based in Tijuana, Mexico, and AutoImmune Therapies, based in the U.K., perform special medical procedures involving worms. When inserted into a person’s arm, worms can (allegedly) treat a variety of autoimmune diseases, including asthma, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.

Representatives at both of these organizations are quick to distance themselves from the tapeworm–weight loss phenomenon. “Helminthic therapy is not appropriate, from our experiences, for weight loss,” says a customer service manager from AutoImmune Therapies in an email. A representative at WormTherapy explained that our interests “didn’t align.”

Yet dieters are keen on the notion that Mexican-purchased tapeworms are the key to extreme, long-lasting weight loss. “Consumers who want to attempt this diet will have to travel to Mexico to do so,” reads a post on DietSpotlight’s website. And back in 2009, WormTherapy did appear to offer a $1,300 “Beef Tapeworm Therapy” procedure for the purposes of shedding a few pounds. They did not comment on whether they still perform tapeworm therapy.

Either way, ingesting worms that eat your insides is a pretty bad idea. But if you are so inclined, don’t forget your anti-worm meds.