Pica Disorder: Eating Everything Except Food

Do you know someone who has a compulsive and continuous behavior of eating substances with no nutritional value such as - wool, paint flakes, paper, wood, hair, chalk, dirt, pebbles, soap, gum, ice, cigarette butts, or feces?

“Pica” is derived from the Latin word for magpie, a bird known to eat anything and everything.

Pica is an eating disorder where you eat non-food items. The interesting facts about pica are that people with this disorder avoid having meals. Instead, they will eat these non-food items because they are hungry and need to survive.

Pica also doesn’t include the consumption of food or drinks with either minimal or no nutritional value. It is specific to eating items that 'shouldn’t be eaten at all'. Simply put, it's a disorder when you eat weird things.

What causes pica syndrome?

Nutritional studies suggest that iron, zinc, or calcium deficiency alters the enzymes in the brain that regulate appetite. It triggers specific cravings for items that would replenish the low nutrient levels. Yet, the non-food items craved do not supply these minerals.

Physiological research shows that in some cases eating dirt or clay helps relieve nausea and remove toxins.

However, dirt-eating cannot be considered as an “abnormality” and a sign of pica, since some cultures believe dirt to have therapeutic potential.

Pica can result in anemia, dieting, and malnourishment. Consuming non-food items may satiate hunger or a way to correct the nutritional deficiency.

However, pica is often associated with intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities like autism, and certain disorders such as schizophrenia and OCD.

Some cases have shown that people develop pica as a coping mechanism against stressors such as trauma, family issues, parental deprivation, and pregnancy.

Diagnosis and signs of pica disorder

As a normal childhood development process, children younger than two years old tend to attempt to put things in their mouths. Hence, doctors do not diagnose pica in these cases.

When a child has moved beyond this developmental stage and grows older, but starts to eat non-food items once again, then this might be one of the signs of pica disorder.

Related: Rumination Syndrome: A Lesser-Known Eating Disorder

Pica disorder in adults is prevalent in pregnant women. In extreme cases, they tend to crave non-food items that can be risky. In such situations, the underlying cause of pica may be due to iron deficiency in the body.

The diagnosis of pica disorder depends on:

  1. Continuous eating of non-food items for at least one month.
  2. The eating behavior should not be a part of any culture’s norm.
  3. The eating behavior should be abnormal for the child’s age.

A doctor will diagnose pica based on the person’s history, symptoms, and the type of items a person has been eating.

Complications of pica disorder

Eating certain non-food items can have serious consequences.

  1. Gastrointestinal complications - abdominal pain and intestinal blockages
  2. Parasitic infections
  3. Choking
  4. Lead poisoning
  5. Nutritional deprivation
  6. Damage to teeth, jaw, and food pipe.

Pica also affects social functioning and family life. Studies have shown pica to cause brain damage and learning disabilities.

What is the treatment for pica?

Therapists often use behavioral modification therapies to help patients unlearn undesirable pica behaviors.

Doctors prescribe treatments to correct mineral and nutrition deficiencies. In some cases, the eating behaviors disappeared after treating nutritional deficiencies.

If pica condition seems to be associated with other mental disorders such as OCD, they may order a psychological evaluation to treat it with appropriate therapy and medication.

Doctors teach parents ways to prevent their kids with pica from eating non-food items, use of childproof locks, or placing items away from the kids on high shelves.

Therapists have come up with interventions that redirect a person’s attention away from the desired object and reward them for this action. Several training programs allow patients to distinguish between food and non-food items.

Pure vitamin supplements have proved to be effective in treating pica in some cases.

Pica usually lasts for several months and eventually disappears on its own. However, in severe conditions, counseling and psychotherapy are essential.

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