Pica is an eating disorder characterized by the consumption of non-food items. There are many misconceptions, including these five common myths, surrounding this obscure eating disorder.
Pica is a health condition in which people consume non-food objects that have no nutritional value such as dirt, glue and sand. Most people do not know that pica is an eating disorder, and even among those who do, there are many misconceptions. While there are plenty of pica myths, here are five of the most common misconceptions about pica.
1. Myth: Pica is a childhood disorder.
Fact: Pica can occur at any age.
Pica in adults is not unheard of, though it does affect children more often than adults. Pica affects all age groups: children, teenagers, adults and the elderly. However, pica is most common in children, pregnant women and individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
There are few statistics available on pica in adults, but an estimated 10% of children older than 12 may engage in pica behaviors. The majority of adults with pica do not have a co-occurring mental health disorder. It is thought that pica is more likely related to underlying biomedical conditions. While an iron deficiency does not explain all cases of pica, the majority of cases of adult pica co-occur with anemia.
2. Myth: Consuming odd foods is an example of pica.
Fact: A person with pica eats non-food items.
The pica definition provided by the National Eating Disorder Association indicates that pica is the persistent consumption of non-food items for at least one month. Items consumed by a person with pica are not only non-food items but are also items that provide no nutritional value. The item must also not be a part of a cultural tradition or otherwise socially accepted practice.
Pica and typical infant mouthing of objects are different. Most young children under the age of two put objects in their mouths to explore the world around them with multiple senses. To be diagnosed with pica, a person has to ingest non-food items intentionally.
In general, children under the age of two are not diagnosed with pica due to the developmentally appropriate exploration through mouthing. While some people may chew on non-food items, a person with pica chooses to ingest the items whereas a person without pica may ingest an item accidentally.
While there are many items which may be ingested as a symptom of pica, there are some common items which have warranted object-specific names, including:
- Geophagia, or the eating of dirt and clay
- Lithophagia, or the eating of stones
- Cautopyreiphagia, or the eating of burned matches
- Trichophagia, or the eating of hair
3. Myth: People with pica consume similar items.
Fact: People with pica consume many different types of items.
While some items may be more commonly ingested by people with pica, there is no specific set of items that are consumed. Some examples of pica-related items that are ingested include:
- Peeling paint
- Feces, either human or animal
- Cigarette ashes
- Clay or dirt
The type of item that is ingested may be related to the underlying cause of the disorder. For example, a person with a nutritional deficiency may crave different items than a person with a mental health condition such as schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Likewise, a person who is attempting to lose weight and eats non-food items to satiate hunger may select different items.
4. Myth: Pica and pregnancy cravings are the same.
Fact: Pregnancy cravings are typically for food items, while pica is the craving and consumption of non-food items.
Pica in pregnancy should only be diagnosed when the person ingests non-food items intentionally. Craving a non-food item during pregnancy does not constitute a diagnosis of pica.
Approximately half of all pregnant women experience some form of craving. While these cravings may at times be odd combinations, usually they are for food. However, pica is more common in pregnant women compared to non-pregnant women. While the reason for pica emerging during pregnancy is unknown, it may be related to nutritional deficiencies. Pica may also be more common in pregnant women who have a family history of pica or have had pica behaviors in the past. The most common non-food items ingested during pregnancy are dirt, clay and powdered laundry detergent.
Cravings for non-food items during pregnancy should be discussed with a doctor because many non-food items could harm the baby. For example, certain toxins may be present which would affect the baby’s development. However, in some cases, a craving for a non-food item during pregnancy may be safe to indulge, such as when a person craves ice chips. Even if a non-food item may be relatively safe to consume outside of pregnancy, a doctor should be consulted before ingesting any non-food items during pregnancy.
5. Myth: Pica isn’t that serious.
Fact: Pica can have serious health complications.
One of the most common types of health complications associated with pica is intestinal obstructions, tearing and infection. Physical obstruction may occur when items collect in the intestine, causing bowel problems or preventing food and water from passing through the intestines.
For example, a bezoar is a mass of non-food objects that the body cannot digest. Bezoars typically get trapped in the throat, stomach or intestines. A common example of a bezoar would be a cat’s hairball. Non-food items may tear or puncture the wall of the stomach, intestines or bowels. These issues can cause a plethora of other complications, including infection.
Serious infections may occur after ingesting certain non-food items such as feces or dirt. These infections include toxocariasis and toxoplasmosis, both of which are infections of parasites most commonly found in animals.
Poisoning is another risk of pica. One of the most commonly ingested items is peeling paint. If the paint is lead-based, eating it may lead to heavy metal poisoning.
A person with pica may also experience nutritional deficiencies and related complications if the consumption of non-food items interferes with the ability to meet nutritional needs. Professional treatment for pica is important for a person’s health and well-being.
If you or a loved one struggle with a drug or alcohol addiction and co-occurring pica, treatment is available. The Recovery Village has treatment centers across the country for substance use and co-occurring disorders. To learn more, speak to a representative today.
National Eating Disorders Association. “Pica.” Accessed June 7, 2019.
Safe Birth Project. “Pregnancy Craving, or Pica Craving?” November 10, 2015. Accessed June 7, 2019.
Mishori, Ranit. “Pica: An age-old eating disorder that’s often missed.” MDedge, July 2014. Accessed June 7, 2019.
Johnson, Bruce. “Clinical Methods: The History, Physical,[…]ratory Examinations.” 3rd edition. National Center for Biotechnology Information, 1990. Accessed June 7, 2019.
Gavin, Mary, MD. “Pica.” KidsHealth, April 2014. Accessed June 7, 2019.
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