PGS Exclusive: A Parasitologist’s Weight-Loss Clinic by Eugene Kaplan

Want to lose weight? Are parasites the solution? Parasitologist and expert Eugene Kaplan looks at recent reported trends of using parasites to lose weight and discovers that all is not as it seems.

Recently it has been reported that the government of Hong Kong has had to resort to an edict against a recently popular mechanism for weight loss: swallow the parasitic roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides, to eat some of the food you ingest and deprive you of the calories. In other words, you eat the Whopper, fries and coke and seek absolution for your sins, not in the confession box from your priest, but in the similarly dark inner recesses of your gut from a worm.

First, I am puzzled by the technique. Do you eat the eight to twelve inch adult worms in a bowl of slowly writhing noodles or do you eat the eggs in feces-contaminated bok choy? Either way, this is a serious gastronomical challenge. Not to mention, that if you opt for the eggs, they will hatch and the juveniles will migrate through your lungs before ending up in your gut.

And to further complicate things, here’s a tip. Make sure these are the human-infecting version of the worm, else the alien larva, let’s say from a similar species in a dog or cat, will get confused in its wanderings and could end up in your eye or brain.

And as if these potential complications weren’t enough, here’s the real rub: unless you swallow enough of these living noodles to clog up your intestine, they will not eat enough to deprive you of the calories that make you overweight. I can attest to this. I had an eight inch female in my intestines and didn’t feel a thing nor lose an ounce of weight. Ascaris has a relatively slow metabolism. It’s not like you have a being like the one in Alien inside you. This is just a pencil thick, eight inch weight-loss device, hardly enough to transform your body on its own.

While the use of Ascaris to lose weight may sound like the stuff of science fiction, it actually is part of a long history of parasitic weight loss. At the 1938 World’s Fair, one could buy a weight-loss pill that brazenly stated it contained “tapeworms”. This was legitimate. The pill contained the scolices (anterior end) of the human beef tapeworm which would produce a bevy of foot long ribbon-like tapeworms hanging in your upper intestine, bathed in your intestinal juices. No eating a bowl of living noodles – users just had to take a pill like any other weight-loss pill – and it was touted as a safe method of weight loss.

The catch – there is no evidence that such an infection can cause you to lose weight – common superstition notwithstanding. Unless you are in terrible physical shape – in which case you would probably be emaciated and not in need of this weight-loss program –a heavy tapeworm infection would not cause you to lose weight, but it might cause death.
A more logical idea is to purchase leeches from a leech farm (there is one in my neighborhood; I can get you the phone number). Leeches are used to suck fluids from lymph-swollen sites where an appendage was just reattached surgically and swelling threatens to burst the sutures. If you use enough leeches, say you arrange them so that they sprout from your arm like branches from a tree, they could remove enough blood to shift your weight scale to the left..

I can go on, like swallowing the cysts of the one-celled animals, Giardia or Entamoeba histolytica. The severe diarrhea would deprive you of excess water and food and leave you emaciated in a week – ads for this method could promise “rapid weight loss.” But the aforementioned techniques seem to be adequate.

And so we arrive at the end of this weight-loss clinic. While parasites might seem like a sure-fire, quick solution, perhaps it might be better to simply forego the Whopper next time.

Eugene H. Kaplan is the Donald E. Axinn Endowed Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Conservation (emeritus) at Hofstra University. His many books include What’s Eating You: People and Parasites and Sensuous Seas: Tales of a Marine Biologist. He is about to embark on a trip to Israel, perhaps stuffed pigeon will be on the menu again.

Like this article? Read Gene’s other blog posts here: Go Ahead, Try the Guinea Pig and here Climate Change is Bringing an Invasion of Parasites.