Worst weight-loss trick ever: Tapeworms

This is one weight-loss strategy to file under "worst idea ever."

An Iowa doctor has issued a formal warning to health workers after treating a woman who bought a tapeworm online as a quick-fix slim-down trick.

The woman, whose name has not been released, told her doctor that she swallowed Taenia saginata, the beef tapeworm, in the hopes of losing weight.

Her doctor appealed to the Iowa Department of Public Health for advice. Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the department director, recommended anti-worm medication — then sent out an email to warn doctors about the availability of illegal tapeworms online, urging them to dissuade dieters from trying the risky method.

"Ingesting tapeworms is extremely risky and can cause a wide range of undesirable side effects, including rare deaths," Quinlisk writes. "Those desiring to lose weight are advised to stick with proven weight loss methods — consuming fewer calories and increasing physical activity."

"You don’t get skinny, you get sort of a swollen belly and you don’t look well," says 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."

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The risky "diet" isn't a new one.

A century ago, snake oil hucksters would sell capsules containing the microscopic head of a Taenia saginata — much like the ones available online today.

"When people would order from snake oil medicine kinds of people a weight loss pill, it would be the head of a Taenia saginata…and it would develop into a 30-foot-long tapeworm in your body," Quinlisk tells Today. "The worm would get into your gut – it's got little hooks on the head – and it would grab onto your intestine and start growing."

The ongoing appeal? Well, technically you do lose weight.

"Tapeworms will cause you to lose weight because you have this huge worm in your intestines eating your food," Quinlisk says.

But you don't lose much weight. In reality, you're more likely to gain a myriad of health problems.

"One tapeworm can't absorb enough food and nutrients to make a big difference in weight, according to scientific research. But the parasite can cause anemia and malnutrition," writes Tony Leys, Des Moines Register's healthcare reporter.

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"Another problem: One tapeworm can grow up to 30 feet long. And because a tapeworm has both male and female reproductive systems, a woman who starts out with one worm could be spreading a bunch of fertilized worm eggs every time she goes to the bathroom."

In 2010, tapeworm-eating made headlines when reports surfaced that people in Hong Kong were trying the dangerous method to drop pounds.

"Parasite infestation may also be fatal if serious complications such as intestinal, biliary tract or pancreatic duct obstruction arise," the spokesman for Hong Kong's department of Health cautioned at the time. "The worms may even invade such organs as the lungs."

New York City registered dietitian Elisa Zied tells Today that a willingness to subject one's body to a parasitic worm often points to a bigger issue.

"I think that's a red flag — that they would be willing to sacrifice their health in order to lose weight," Zied says.

"If you get to the point of desperation where you will try anything, you need to just get back to the basics and really think about what’s going on in your life, and how you’re eating and how you’re being physically active," she says, recommending that extreme dieters talk to dieticians or nutritionists before making weight-loss decisions that could have serious consequences.

Dieters, just say no to tapeworms.

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