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Pica Disorder: Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Carol King Kennard

Carol has a master's degree in Nutrition/Dietetics and taught nutrition-related courses at the university level for 10 years.

Do food cravings lead you to eat the nutrients you need? This lesson takes a look at pica disorder, a condition where cravings can be downright dangerous. Learn more about commonly craved items, symptoms, possible causes, and treatment for this unusual disorder.

Definition

Think about the things you love to eat, even if you know they're bad for you. Food cravings, for most of us, consist of sweet, salty, or fatty foods like chocolate, potato chips, or fried chicken. Food cravings can also be a little strange--maybe you remember hearing that Aunt Sally craved pickles and ice cream and other strange combinations of foods during pregnancy?

What drives these mysterious cravings? Many justify cravings as the body's ability to somehow mysteriously lead us to foods and nutrients we need, but what if our cravings are for things that can hurt us? For instance, what if you woke up craving burnt matches or tire inner tubes for breakfast?

This is the case with pica disorder. In fact, pica is the consistent craving and eating of things that are not considered food (they have very little or no nutritional value). Here are some examples of the bizarre things eaten:

• mothballs

• hair

• tire inner tubes

• dirt

• antacid tablets

• baking soda

• coffee grounds

• uncooked starch (flour, raw rice, laundry starch)

• sand

• cigarette butts or ashes

• stone or gravel

• glue

• chalk

• feces

Man Eating Matches

Eating glue, paper, ice, or hair one time is not enough for a diagnosis of pica disorder. Consistently eating any of these or other nonfood items for at least one month leads to an official diagnosis of pica disorder and, potentially, many side effects.

Side Effects

As you can imagine, a steady diet of sand, stone, and gravel can quickly lead to digestive troubles. Dirt, feces, tire inner tubes and inedible things can be full of harmful toxins and bacteria. Other possible side effects include choking, parasites, lead poisoning, and bowel obstructions. Not to mention that if someone is filling up on things that do not contain nutrients (and actually block the absorption of some nutrients), they may feel full and not be hungry for nutritious foods.

Woman Eating Dirt

Causes

Common food cravings frequently stem from changes in hormones and chemicals in the body. Like when you wake up late, skip breakfast, study instead of eating lunch, and then have such a craving for sweets that you buy a dozen donuts and eat them all on the way home. Pica disorder seems to be very different from these common cravings, and it can be more difficult to pinpoint a specific cause.

Pica is frequently found in low-income women (particularly pregnant women) and children who are iron-deficient (they are losing more iron from the body than they are replacing). In fact, about 50% of patients with iron deficiency experience pica-related behaviors. Pica frequently goes away when iron levels go back to normal.

Other things that may bring on pica are hunger, efforts to ward off toxins and microbes, superstitions, customs, and traditions. Pica can sometimes be connected with mental disabilities, developmental disabilities, or obsessive-compulsive disorder leading to the unusual eating behavior.

Treatment

Damage (like blockages in intestines, bacterial infections, lead poisoning, etc.) occurring as a result of the consumption of harmful nonfood items must be taken care of first. The underlying 'cause' may be a variety of things.

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