Appetite for the Unusual:
Sufferers of 'Pica' Crave Things That Aren't Food
Not all eating disorders involve the consumption of too little or too much food. Sufferers of a condition called "pica" eat substances and objects that aren't food at all. And even though pica has been considered uncommon compared to more-familiar eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, a recent government healthcare study found that hospitalizations in the United States caused by pica had risen 93 percent between 1999 and 2009.
Those afflicted with pica crave – and feel compelled to actually consume –non-food items that range from fairly harmless and innocuous to dangerous and even life-threatening. A pica sufferer may ingest naturally occurring substances such as dirt, sand, rocks or clay; household products like baking soda, toothpaste, or glue; or things normally considered trash like cigarette butts or coffee grounds. Pica has even compelled people to eat strange objects like pens and pencils or even something as revolting to most people as human or animal feces.
Pica, by the way, gets its unusual name from the Latin word for the magpie, an intelligent, crow-like bird that has a somewhat exaggerated reputation for eating anything, including small human-made objects.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the main demographic groups afflicted by pica is very young children, those between age 2 and 3. We've all known kids who've experimented with eating paste, or maybe swallowed buttons or coins. (Some of us may even remember doing such things ourselves!) But when these odd cravings and compulsions for non-foods persist for about a month or longer, especially if they're happening to a child who's beyond the developmentally appropriate age for such experimentation, a diagnosis of pica is a strong possibility. Among children aged between 1 and 6 years old, it's estimated that pica affects between 10 and 30 percent of them at some point. Boys and girls seem to be affected in equal numbers.
Pica also occurs more commonly in children, teens and adults who have developmental disabilities such as autism or neurological conditions such as epilepsy or a brain injury. Pica may also occur along with a more severe mental illness such as schizophrenia. In all these cases, pica may be considered a secondary diagnosis, and may not even be specifically treated unless its symptoms are severe.
A third group of people prone to pica is, oddly enough, pregnant women. Although, maybe that isn't so odd when you consider that in some cultures it's normal for women to eat dirt or clay during pregnancy. Such practices may have a biological basis in the body's need for extra nutrients during pregnancy, and even in some non-pregnant pica sufferers, there's speculation that mineral deficiencies could play a role in causing their unusual cravings. Some pregnant women have also reported being compelled to eat large quantities of ice or even frost scraped from a freezer. In any event, symptoms of pica usually cease soon after the pregnancy ends, although not always.
At first pica may just seem like an amusing oddity of human behavior, but it can cause serious physical illness requiring hospitalization when the material ingested contains toxins, dangerous bacteria or parasites. Injury to the digestive tract, such as a perforated bowel from sharp objects, can also occur.
The true causes of pica are not known, although there has been much speculation about possible physical, mental, emotional and social causes or contributing factors. In patients who are otherwise neurologically normal, pica may be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
More helpful information about eating disorders of all kinds and options for treatment can be found at Caring Online, a positive, supportive website established by Dr. Gregory Jantz, an internationally respected expert on eating disorders. Dr. Jantz is the founder of A Place of Hope, a residential treatment center in Edmonds, WA that uses a "whole-person" approach to help people overcome eating disorders. Dr. Jantz is also the author of the best-selling book Hope, Help and Healing for Eating Disorders, as well as many other books on mental and emotional well-being.