It's the dieter's ultimate fantasy: Eat all you want and still lose weight. Since the Victorian era, some have believed that there was such a magic bullet. You just had to have the guts to swallow a capsule containing live tapeworms. Michael Mosley, a British journalist and physician who is famous for subjecting himself to physical stunts in the name of science, decided to find out whether the tapeworm diet actually works. His stomach-turning experiment was documented as part of an upcoming program called Infested! Living With Parasites that will air on the BBC in February.
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Tapeworms are parasites that can be accidentally ingested by eating undercooked, infected beef or pork. They can grow to be 50 feet long and live for 20 years inside their host. Mosley said his wife, also a medical doctor, wasn't thrilled with him becoming a human guinea pig. "But I told her not to worry—this particular tapeworm is relatively innocuous," he told the BBC. Mosley consumed beef tapeworm, which is less dangerous than pork. It's also not infectious between humans, so there was no risk of passing it on. Some cases of infection are asymptomatic, but typical signs include nausea, diarrhea, bloating, and even, in severe cases, blindness, brain damage, and death. "That's the tricky thing about tapeworms," microbiologist Mary Pitcher, PhD, explained to Yahoo Shine. "They like to travel around the body, to the brain, for instance." Mosley was under medical supervision; obviously, no one should try this experiment at home.
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Because of the health risk, tapeworms are banned for sale in the United Kingdom, the same as in the United States. That doesn't mean you can't buy them — or some other potentially dangerous substance being marketed to hopeful dieters as tapeworm — online. In August 2013, the Iowa Department of Health notified public health workers about a woman who had visited her doctor after becoming ill from eating a tapeworm pill she purchased on the Internet. Mosley traveled to Kenya and obtained his parasite from cysts containing tapeworm eggs on a cow's tongue he located in a slaughterhouse. Can we just pause here for a collective "Eww!"? He ate three of the cysts and, six weeks later, gulped down a tiny camera remotely connected to an iPad to discover if he had any, in his case, welcome guests in his intestine.
Michael Mosley with his new friend (courtesy BBC)
Score! "When I first saw the worms, I was in an Indian restaurant," he said. "I shouted out, 'Blimey! There's a tapeworm in me!' The other diners looked very surprised." That's the understatement of the year. Mosley kept a food diary during the six-week trial and noticed that he had been eating more carbohydrates, especially sugar and chocolate. When he weighed himself, contrary to myth, he had gained about 2 pounds. Tapeworms live off nutrients consumed by their hosts, especially carbs, which could account for his cravings. They also digest far fewer calories than a human or animal eats, so any weight loss associated with an infection would more likely be the result of vomiting or diarrhea. Mosley's intestinal visitors were killed off by medication, and fortunately he had no lasting symptoms.
Eating worms for weight loss may seem crazy, but there is no end to what people will believe when it comes to quick weight-loss fixes. Recently, a plan called the Werewolf Diet circulated on the Internet. It claimed that you could lose up to 6 pounds in 24 hours by juice fasting during the full or new moon. And Mosley wasn't only looking to debunk an enduring and harmful diet myth. He is also sharing his results with scientists at Salford University in Manchester, England. In the past few years, researchers have been looking at worm therapy as a way to combat certain diseases. Some scientists hypothesize that our lack of exposure to parasites has led to an increase in asthma and allergies and autoimmune disorders such as Crohn's disease. In the future, worm pills may be a legitimate fad instead of a medicinal fraud.