I didn't think anything users asked on the DietDoc Forum could shock me. But I was mistaken.
A reader, who will mercifully remain anonymous, asked me: “What type of worms can I swallow to lose weight?"
That anyone could consider infecting herself with a parasite to lose weight is really shocking. However, this mind-boggling question pointed out to me once more to what incredible lengths people will go to lose weight.
Parasites are dangerous
Parasites such as tape worms - Taenia saginata (found in contaminated beef) and Taenia solium (found in contaminated pork) - are 'segmented, ribbon-shaped, hermaphroditic worms' (Harrison, 1980), which live in the digestive tract of many animals.
Tape worms do not have their own digestive tract, so they have to absorb food from their host. They attach themselves to the mucous membranes of the digestive tract with suckers and then absorb the food intended for the host animal’s health and survival. Consequently the host animal is deprived of its food and could lose weight (see symptoms below).
Beef tape worm
The beef tape worm attaches itself to the upper part of the duodenum and can survive for as long as 25 years inside the host animal.
Taenia saginata is found in all countries where beef is eaten raw or not cooked properly. It tends to occur more frequently in humans in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, the Middle East, Yugoslavia, Mexico, South America and Russia. In South Africa, eating poorly cured 'wet' beef or game biltong or very underdone beef or steak tartare (raw ground beef served in some restaurants) may expose you to contamination.
Pork tape worm
Taenia solium also occurs in all countries where pork is eaten and not properly cooked. It is probable that the injunctions against eating pork which form part of many religions such as the Muslim and Jewish faiths, and some African sects, are in part based on avoidance of infection by the pork tape worm.
Abdominal discomfort, diarrhoea, constantly feeling hungry, weight loss, irritability, nausea and increased appetite (in some patients) are associated with this infestation.
The idea that infestation with tape worms will cause weight loss is not necessarily true, however, as not all patients lose weight. Imagine that you are overweight and go to the extreme lengths of infecting yourself with tape worms in an attempt to lose weight, but you are one of the patients who does not react this way. Just think what you have done to your general health, and how you’ve prevented the absorption of important nutrients - all for nothing.
The greatest danger
While tape worms remain in the digestive tract they probably only deplete the body of important nutrients, stunt growth in children and cause unpleasant symptoms. However, if humans act as what is called 'the intermediate host' for these infections, then so-called 'cysticerci' develop in many parts of the body - under the skin, in the muscles, in the abdominal organs and most dangerously in the eye and the brain.
Anyone who is infected with tape worm cysticerci can develop muscular pains, weakness, fever and blood cell pathology. If these cyst-like forms of the tape worm invade the brain, patients can develop meningoencephalitis, or the symptoms of epilepsy, brain tumours, encephalitis and other neurological disorders.
How to test if you are infected
If you suspect you have been infected with tape worms, it is important to have a medical checkup. Your doctor will send you to have a stool sample tested for signs of tape worm infestation: the sample is examined under a microscope for pieces of tape worm that have broken off. For more complex infestations with cysticerci, the doctor may have to take biopsies or even request a CT-scan of the brain.
Luckily there are medications that can be administered to kill tape worms and flush them out of the digestive tract. Removal of cysticerci may require surgery, which is not a pleasant option.
Prevention is always better than cure. Make sure that you cook all raw meat (beef, pork and venison) properly. Refrigeration or salting for long periods, or freezing at -10C for five days will also destroy the cysticerci.
In South Africa, meat for human consumption is usually inspected for worm infestations and condemned if the meat is found to be contaminated. So purchase your meat from a reliable butcher or supermarket and cook it thoroughly. Don't buy meat from street vendors if possible, unless it has been well cooked.
When you buy biltong, also buy from a reputable source and select well-dried meat. If you enjoy steak tartare, only eat it at top restaurants.
And never, ever even dream of trying to get yourself infected with tape worm to lose weight. This is a revolting and dangerous idea. Don't buy suspicious slimming pills from foreign countries that promise miraculous weight loss without listing their contents on the label. You run the risk of destroying your health and nothing, not even a slim figure, is worth such a risk.
Please be sensible and rather use an energy-reduced, low-fat balanced diet and plenty of daily exercise to lose that weight. If you suspect that you or your children suffer from worm infestations, do go for a medical check-up so that these infections can be treated as soon as possible before they harm your health.
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.