Most of us can admit to indulging in some unusual meals every once and a while. But for some people, strange eating goes beyond weird foods to consuming things that aren’t food at all.
Consuming dirt, chalk, paper or hair on a regular basis might seem bizarre to most of us, yet that is the reality for sufferers of pica, an eating disorder defined by the eating of nonfood items. And it seems that this strange disorder is affecting more people every year. Between 1999 and 2009, yearly hospitalizations for pica in the United States increased by 93%, according to a report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Children are always putting weird things in their mouths, so it’s not surprising that pica is seen more often in children. However, pica is not just kids' stuff, and adults can suffer from this disorder as well. Pica can occur during pregnancy — guess there are weirder cravings than pickles and ice cream — as hormonal changes and the body try to meet the nutritional needs of the fetus. Similarly, for nonpregnant sufferers, being nutrient-deficient could trigger unusual cravings. Still, others may desire certain objects simply for the way they feel in their mouths.
Often pica behaviors will disappear on their own; but for others, these symptoms last well into adulthood and can occur alongside other mental disorders.
Pica is frequently associated with lead poisoning, which can lead to intellectual impairment and behavioral problems — as well as seizures, coma and respiratory arrest. Other complications from pica can include parasitic infestations associated with consuming feces or dirt and such gastrointestinal complications as constipation, ulcerations and intestinal obstructions.
As mentioned above, pica appears to have both physiological and psychological effects. Therefore, treating the disease cannot be a one-size-fits all approach. Treatment usually begins by assessing the nutritional needs of the sufferer and then examining environment, cultural and familial behaviors to determine the cause and find the best course of action. Treatment can include giving the sufferer positive reinforcement for eating normal foods and medication to treat developmental disorders.
Any fans of Andrew Zimmern will understand that what’s considered strange eating can vary across the globe. For many cultures, eating such things as dirt is part of the cultural experience and not considered a pathological disorder. For example, in some southern, rural African-American communities, eating clay and starch is common.
Whether culturally acceptable or not, ingesting certain objects can lead to severe health consequences and should be taken seriously. If you suspect you or someone you know may suffer from pica, seek professional help immediately.