ANRED logo: eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating disorder: information and resources


  • Pica includes strong cravings for non-food items. The most frequent are

    • Dirt, clay
    • Paint chips, plaster, chalk
    • Cornstarch, laundry starch, baking soda
    • Coffee grounds
    • Cigarette ashes, burnt match heads
    • Rust
    • Other items that are not usually considered food

  • Pica is usually found in

    • Pregnant women
    • People whose diets are deficient in minerals contained in the consumed substances
    • People who have psychiatric disturbances such as hysteria
    • People with developmental disabilities or similar impairments.
    • People whose family or ethnic customs include eating certain non-food substances
    • People who diet, become hungry, and then try to ease hunger and cravings with low-calorie, non-food substances.

  • Some pica is harmless

But if the craved substance is toxic or contaminated (intestinal infections and parasites are particular concerns), or if it blocks the intestines, it can lead to medical emergency and death. Medical evaluation is essential.

  • Pica: facts and theories

    • The person must regularly eat these craved substances for a month or more before a diagnosis is given.
    • The name "pica" comes from the Latin word for magpie, a bird that is famous for eating anything and everything.
    • Perhaps ten to twenty percent of children have pica at some time before adulthood.
    • Depending on the population, zero percent to sixty-eight percent of pregnant women have pica. Those in lower socioeconomic groups seem to have more of these cravings.
    • In some cases, pica is related not to dietary deficiencies but to folk traditions passed on in families or ethnic groups. 
    • Some people treat clay or dirt eating as a part of daily routine, somewhat like smoking.
    • Others believe that eating dirt will help them incorporate magical spirits from the Earth into their bodies.
    • Still others believe that certain kinds of clay will suppress morning sickness when eaten.
    • Some children with pica may be imitating a pet dog or cat.
    • Stress may be a precipitating factor, especially the stress of dieting when the person tries to relieve hunger and cravings with non-food substances.
    • There is evidence to support the hypothesis that at least some pica is a response to dietary deficiency. Pregnant women, for example, have given up pica after they were treated for iron-deficiency anemia.
    • But other cases of pica can cause dietary deficiencies because the consumed substances block absorption of essential nutrients in the intestines. 
    • If pica is a lifestyle choice that does not harm the individual, and if it is not part of an underlying eating disorder, it can go untreated, but care should be taken to protect against toxic substances (such as lead in paint and plaster chips). The person must be alert for symptoms (pain, lack of bowel movements, abdominal bloat and distention) that suggest the substance has formed an indigestible mass that has blocked the intestines. If such is the case, immediate medical attention is necessary.

 Warning! Please Note: ANRED information is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation and treatment. For help with the physical and emotional problems associated with eating disorders, talk to your physician and a mental health professional.

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