The Awful Tapeworm Diet Probably Never Actually Happened

“Men are so imprudent that they take up a diet which, though it tastes sweet, is poisonous.” —Machiavelli

In A Nutshell

According to the story, one of the most disgusting diet fads in history was the tapeworm diet. People eager to lose weight would swallow pills with tapeworms or tapeworm eggs and let the worms do their work. Only, there’s such an absolute lack of evidence that it was ever actually a real thing, it’s looking like it’s always been an urban legend (that likely came from a humor columnist) . . . until people today started doing it for real.

The Whole Bushel

We’ve all heard the story, and it’s made every single person cringe just a little bit. Women, wanting so, so badly to be thin, swallow tapeworm eggs. The eggs hatch in their digestive tract, start sucking away all the calories in all the food they eat, and when they’re sufficiently thin, they take something to kill off the tapeworms.

It’s made the news fairly recently, with people both claiming to have been infected with tapeworms while eating out, and others that claim they’re just trying to lose weight the old-fashioned way. While they certainly might be trying to do so, it’s thought that the whole thing is just an absolute urban legend.

According to the story, the tapeworm diets were a huge thing around 1910. There are vintage advertisements floating around and, honestly, it’s one of those stories that you really don’t want to look too closely at for fear of just what you might see. But a little research into it finds that there’s really not a whole lot of evidence that there ever was such a fad or that it was ever a popular diet—even in the days of cocaine wine and morphine teething drops for babies.

The Pure Food and Drug Act was established in 1906, and it was meant to be cracking down on just this sort of thing. In addition to the new requirement that food and drugs needed to state clearly on the label was in them, they were also forbidden to contain anything that might be dangerous, pose a health risk, or, according to the FDA summary, “constitute a filthy or decomposed substance.”

If tapeworms don’t fall into that category, we’re not sure what does.

It was about the same time that the American Medical Association was also cracking down on fraudulent claims and cures by releasing lists, books, booklets, and pamphlets warning people just what they should be watching for.

Checking the accepted lists from the AMA and the FDA don’t show any trace of the so-called tapeworm diet pills.

Article Continued Below

There’s also a source that the story of the tapeworm diet might have grown out of. In 1927, a humor columnist ran—in syndication across the country—a story about a woman who is thrilled to be able to eat all that she wants to because of these wonderful new diet pills, which are suddenly less wonderful when she sees them move on their own.

In the evidence pile, there are also some inquires to the FDA, written and responded to in the 1930s, wanting to know if the tapeworm pills are something that they need to look out for. The FDA response is that it’s absolutely not true.

But, that’s not the end of the story, because it’s now becoming true. In 2013, it was all over the news that an Iowa woman bought a tapeworm online and swallowed it, thinking that it was a great idea for speeding up her weight-loss progress. It wasn’t, and doctors warned against the practice for health reasons relating to the person eating a tapeworm and for the health of others around them.

Tapeworms can spread through animals and people, usually from eating undercooked pork. Far from working weight-loss magic, symptoms more commonly associated with them are abdominal pain and a loss of appetite. And, based on how they spread, one tapeworm-infested person hitting a public bathroom can present all kinds of problems.

Factor in the idea that a tapeworm can get up to 9 meters (30 feet) in length and one worm can fertilize its own eggs, and it’s really, really, really not something you want to be doing.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
The Quack Doctor: ‘Eat! Eat! Eat!’ Those notorious tapeworm diet pills
US Food and Drug Administration: The 1906 Food and Drugs Act and Its Enforcement
Huffington Post: Woman Swallows Tapeworm To Lose Weight; Tells Doctor She Bought It On The Internet

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