Pica Eating Disorder

By Wendy Innes. May 7th 2016

Pica is an eating disorder that is rarely talked about, but is just as serious as anorexia or bulimia. In fact, it can even be deadly. Although it is treatable, the problem often lies in getting the person to admit to it and seeking help.

What Is It?

Pica is an eating disorder that causes people to consume non-food items. It typically affects pregnant women and young children under the age of six. Research has linked pica to an iron deficiency, though this is just one factor and not the absolute cause.

Those who suffer from pica will typically eat things like:

  • Ice
  • Dirt
  • Clay
  • Paper
  • Paint
  • Animal feces
  • Metal objects

There is no single diagnostic test for pica. However, since it is linked to deficiencies in the diet, a doctor may perform blood tests to check the levels of iron and zinc in the body.

In children, pica goes beyond the natural curiosity to put things in the mouth. Many children, especially infants and toddlers, will put things in their mouth. But children with pica will do it compulsively and well past their toddler years.

In order for someone to be diagnosed with pica, symptoms must be present for one month or more.

Causes And Risk Factors

The exact cause of pica is not known and it is thought that many factors combine to cause the behavior to start. It is thought that between 10 and 32 percent of children experience pica before they are 6 years old. Though it is less common, pregnant women can suffer from pica as well. If associated with another condition such as a developmental or mental health disorder, pica can last into adulthood.

There are a number of factors that contribute to children developing pica, including:

  • Neglect: Children who are not supervised are more likely to eat non-food items.
  • Poverty: A lack of food can cause people to consume non-food items.
  • Learned behavior: Some religious or cultural practices do eat non-food items as part of their culture and this learned behavior is often passed onto children.
  • Developmental problems: Developmental conditions, like autism, can also play a role in the development of pica. The number of cases of pica among autistic children is significantly higher than children who are normal developmentally.
  • Mental health problems: Pica has a connection with obsessive compulsive disorder. The eating of non-food items is often compulsive, meaning that the person can't stop themselves no matter how much they want to.

According to the Journal of American Dietetic Association, women who are deficient in iron or other nutritive metals may experience pica, and some research suggests that women who exhibited pica symptoms as children are much more likely to experience pica when pregnant.


The symptom of pica is the same as the condition itself; the overwhelming need to consume non-food items. People, especially pregnant women, will often try to stop themselves from eating whatever the item is that they are craving, typically out of shame and concern for their health. However, children with pica don't have this kind of control yet, so they may not be able to stop themselves.

Treatment And Complications

Pica is one of the most difficult eating disorders to treat because in most cases, people don't want to admit that they have it. If the person affected is a child, the parents may not even be aware that their child is consuming non-food items until something serious happens, such as a blockage in the digestive tract or severe malnutrition. A pregnant woman may not want to admit that she has these cravings or compulsions out of shame. Because of this, it's possible that pica is much more common than originally thought. However, pica can be treated with a multi-disciplinary approach.

Treatment for pica often involves mental health care as well as medical treatment for any nutritional deficiencies since pica is often linked to these deficiencies. This can include a number of different therapies based on the individual person. Many pregnant women report that the cravings for non-food items virtually disappear once the deficiencies are corrected. Mental health care is also used since there may also be used since eating these items can easily become a compulsion that one cannot stop.

There are a number of complications associated with pica. Aside from nutritional deficiencies, blockages in the digestive system can be serious and require surgery to clear. Some items like plastics or cigarette butts can contain toxic chemicals or parasites that can be very harmful to an unborn baby or a child. In some cases, patients die because they've consumed products like nails or metal fragments.

Occasionally pica goes away on its own, but if a person has it, or suspects that their child has it, they shouldn't wait to seek treatment in hopes that the problem will just disappear.

Pica And Pregnancy

While pica in children is serious, pica during pregnancy is even more so. The reason is that it not only affects the health of the mother, but the health of a very fragile unborn baby. Often the things that are craved or consumed include substances that would be harmful to a healthy adult, but when one considers that everything a mother puts into her body also affects her baby, it becomes even more alarming. If a pregnant woman has these types of cravings or is eating non-food items, she needs to tell her doctor and seek help from a specialist.

Unfortunately, pica is a condition that a lot of prenatal health care providers are not familiar with, so often the best advice that they can give is "Just don’t eat that." But when one considers that eating these things is a compulsion "Just say no" isn't always possible. If this is the response a woman gets from her doctor, she should try getting help from a mental health provider who specializes in treating eating disorders.

Pica can be quite serious, but it can also be overcome. Often the biggest hurdle is the shame of admitting that the problem exists. But like any other addiction, admitting that there is a problem is the first step toward recovery. Once a person gets treatment, there are usually no lasting effects and people can move on and live normal lives.


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