The tapeworm diet is certainly an unconventional suggestion as a means of getting fit, but does it actually work, asks Alison Lee

The diet industry sure has dreamed up some strange ways to pocket people’s money: there’s the Atkins diet, Celebrity Slim, the cabbage soup diet and some quacks even advocate “healthy food and regular exercise”. In 2009, Tyra Banks joined the nutrition Nazis, extolling the virtues of the most ludicrous of all in the tapeworm diet. This weight-loss concept has been around since the 19th century and it was stupid back then and is still completely bonkers today.

What exactly is the problem with the idea? It seems to make some rational sense. Get infected with an innocuous little parasite, become supermodel slim, and then evict your new friend with a simple dose of de-wormer. Sadly, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Becoming infected with the diet industry’s tapeworm of choice, Taenia Saginata, isn’t easy. You can’t just pop some tapeworm eggs. You have to eat a small, fluid-filled cyst found in cattle flesh, which contains immature tapeworms. This necessitates travelling to T Saginata’s native lands (developing countries in Africa or Latin America), slaughtering infected cattle and carefully examining their muscles until you find a teeny tiny cyst, which you have to eat raw.

The process is complicated by the existence of other almost identical tapeworm species, such as Taenia Solium, which also infect cattle. Unless you’re a qualified parasitologist, it’s easy to mix the two up, which may pose a serious problem. Accidentally infecting yourself with T Solium is not something you want to do. This parasite has a penchant for shacking up in the human brain.

So you’ve travelled to Timbuktu, killed some cows, found your tapeworm cyst and chowed down on very rare steak. What then? Possibly nothing. The infection is often asymptomatic, despite the disturbing presence of a 5-20 metre long flatworm in your gut. If you’re lucky and it isn’t asymptomatic, you may lose weight. You may also suffer from diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, anaemia, vitamin deficiency and bloat as fluid pools in your abdomen.

We haven’t even come to the fun part yet. The treatment. Lets say you’ve dropped to a size zero. How do you evict your buddy? It’s simple: take a dose of a drug called praziquantal. This paralyses Mr Tapeworm and allows your body to expel him. However, expelling a ten-metre long tapeworm from your intestine may leave you with post-traumatic stress disorder that even being skinny won’t compensate for.

If you’d still like to give the tapeworm diet a shot, there are handy clinics in Mexico that charge a mere $2,000 to infect you. Maybe cabbage soup doesn’t taste so horrible after all.