Most people have heard of the most common eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Anorexics struggle with a fear of gaining weight and use many methods to lose it, including starvation and excessive exercise. People who suffer from bulimia struggle with the same fears, but rather than starve themselves, they typically binge on food and then purge it shortly after consumption by inducing vomiting or abusing laxatives.
However, not all eating disorders fall into these two categories. Though they are less common, there are several others. Most of these unusual eating disorders fall under a category known as pica.
Pica is a disorder characterized by eating either non-nutritive substances, such as dirt, or substances that hold little nutritional value, such as cornstarch. Eating strange substances once or twice does not constitute pica; the ingestion must continue for at least one month and must occur in people whose ages make consumption developmentally abnormal. For example, it’s not uncommon for a young child to eat modeling clay on occasion, but it would be unusual for an adult to eat it on a regular basis.
Pica has multiple subcategories, each specific to the substance ingested.
Geophagia is the habit of eating earth, soil or clay. Though typically not as harmful as other forms of pica eating disorders, complications may still arise, including electrolyte disturbances, intestinal obstruction and parasitic infection. The risk increases proportionally with the amount ingested.
Lithophagia, a subgroup of geophagia, refers to the compulsive eating of rocks or pebbles. Aside from having no nutritional value whatsoever, lithophagia has some very serious consequences. While small rocks or pebbles may pass through the body and be eliminated safely, larger rocks or pebbles may not. This can lead to severe blockage in the intestinal tract, as well as electrolyte disturbances, stomach or colon perforations and severe diarrhea.
Hyalophagia is a rare form of pica that involves eating glass. Hyalophagia is a pathological disorder, meaning it’s highly abnormal. It’s also a very dangerous disorder; ingested glass may damage the throat, stomach and intestines as fragments pass through the body.
Amylophagia is an unusual eating disorder that involves consuming excessive amounts of purified starch, such as cornstarch. Amylophagia is most commonly observed in pregnant women, and may often be a symptom of gestational diabetes.
Pagophagia, sometimes tied to iron deficiency anemia, involves the compulsive eating of ice. While pagophagia is a relatively safe eating disorder despite being a form of pica, it does have negative side effects such as headaches and broken teeth.
Cautopyreiophagia is the compulsive ingestion of burnt match heads. Eating ashes is also sometimes placed into this category. In addition to the risk of burns if a spent match head is eaten before it has cooled down, cautopyreiophagia may also raise potassium levels to dangerous amounts and in some cases may cause renal failure.
Trichophagia is the consumption of hair. It’s most often seen in people with the obsessive compulsive disorder of pulling out one’s own hair, known as trichotillomania. Trichophagia can be dangerous because the hair may become lodged in the gastrointestinal tract, causing stomach pain, indigestion and blockage. In extreme cases, a blockage may lead to death.
If you suffer from any of the unusual eating disorders on this list, seek medical attention. The compulsions can be treated with therapy and behavior modification techniques.
Frances, Richard J. Clinical Textbook of Addictive Disorders. Guilford Press, 2005.
Keel, Pamela K. Eating Disorders. Prentice Hall, 2004.