Pica: The Consumption of Nonfood Items
By Shoshana Kosman, RD/LD
Dirt. Clay. Ice. Toothpaste. Coffee grounds. What do all of these have in common? For some people who have an eating disorder called pica, these items may be considered substitutes for food.
What is pica?
Pica is a lesser known eating disorder that causes people to crave and consume nonfood items that are not edible and have no nutritional value. When ingested in large quantities, these nonfood items can cause serious harm, such as bacterial infections, lead poisoning, iron deficiency, and anemia. Since many of the nonfood items consumed by pica sufferers are not only devoid of any nutritional value, but also highly toxic, pica is a serious eating disorder that should be treated immediately.
What causes pica?
It might seem unfathomable why someone would want to consume large quantities of nonfood items like chalk, laundry detergent, buttons, glue, and cigarette butts. While specific causes of pica are unknown, several risk factors have been identified:
- Nutritional deficiencies, such as iron or zinc, which can trigger cravings
- Developmental disabilities, such as autism and mental retardation
- Mental health conditions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety
- Dieting, which can cause nutritional deficiencies and encourage people to eat nonfood items to stave off hunger
How is pica treated?
Since it is not yet clear why pica develops in a patient, there is no single cure for this disorder. Treatment varies from individual to individual, but the main goal is to reduce the behavior of eating nonfood substances and to treat any ailments that might have been caused by this behavior or might have led to this behavior in the first place. Pica patients often undergo a combination of nutritional and medical support to help them overcome their physical problems. It is also recommended that pica patients undergo therapy to help reduce the behavior.
Since pica is a disorder that has been associated with nutritional deficiencies, patients who have undergone bariatric surgery should be extra attentive about maintaining a nutritious diet and consuming proper supplements.