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It’s difficult for some people to fathom eating non-nutritional substances such as dirt, hair, rocks – or even feces. But this is typical of a person who has the eating disorder known as pica. It’s a disorder that can inflict damage on the body when a pica sufferer eats sharp objects or poisonous ones. What kinds of pica behaviors are common in people who have this condition?
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What is Pica?
Pica is a type of eating disorder where a person eats non-food substances. To be diagnosed with this condition, a person must have had the abnormal eating behavior for at least a month. It must also occur at an age where this type of eating behavior is inappropriate - usually over the age of eighteen months. It also shouldn’t be diagnosed in a child or adult where such behavior is culturally normal. Pica is more common in children and people who are mentally handicapped, have autism, or a history of a brain injury. It can also occur during pregnancy.
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Common Pica Behaviors
Pica behaviors consist of eating non-food items such as dirt, hair, ice, paint chips, household products, fingernails, rocks, objects found on the sidewalk, or feces. Any object that a pica sufferer can fit into their mouth is fair game for them. With this type of behavior, it’s not surprising that pica patients sometimes experience injury to their digestive tract, food poisoning or heavy metal poisoning. In fact, lead poisoning is one of the most common complications of this eating disorder.
Some experts speculate these abnormal pica behaviors stem from a pica patient’s inability to distinguish between edible and non-edible items. This would explain why pica is more common in people who are mentally handicapped. Other experts have proposed that pica behavior may be sign of an underlying nutritional deficiency, but this has never been proven - although iron deficiency is more common among pica sufferers. In some cases, pica comes from malnutrition or lack of environmental stimulation, particularly in children.
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Pica During Pregnancy
As you might expect, pica behaviors during pregnancy differ from those seen in mentally handicapped pica sufferers. The urge to eat non-food items during pregnancy may be a response to cravings related to hormonal fluctuations or a way to satisfy a pregnancy-related mineral deficiency.
According to information on the American Pregnancy Association website, women who have low iron levels may be prone to pica behaviors. Fortunately, pica usually subsides once the baby is born, but eating the wrong non-food items can reduce absorption of minerals a pregnant woman needs - or even lead to heavy metal poisoning.
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The Bottom Line?
Pica behaviors are understandably disturbing to people who have a loved one with this disorder, and they can lead to injury or poisoning in people who display them. Fortunately, this condition often goes away spontaneously, and in cases where that doesn't happen, there are treatments available.
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American Pregnancy Association. "Pregnancy and Pica: Non-Food Cravings"
Emedicine. “Eating Disorder: Pica”
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.