What Is Pica Eating Disorder? Know Its Causes, Symptoms And Treatment Methods!

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Published on: 11-Mar-2024

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What Is Pica Eating Disorder? Know Its Causes, Symptoms And Treatment Methods!

What Is Pica Eating Disorder? Know Its Causes, Symptoms And Treatment Methods!

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Being a mental health condition, pica eating disorder is characterised by the compulsive swallowing of non-food items. This behaviour is often observed in children and associated with certain conditions. Although generally harmless, ingesting certain items can pose significant risks. Fortunately, pica is treatable through therapy and lifestyle modifications.

Although relatively common, the exact prevalence of pica remains uncertain due to varying definitions in research studies. Also, healthcare providers can sometimes overlook the disorder of eating weird things, especially when people fail to disclose or recognise signs in children, where mouthing objects is a typical developmental stage.

Pica eating disorder significantly compels people to crave and consume non-food items such as paint chips, dirt, paper, or hair. This disorder can lead to serious health complications, including intestinal blockages and toxic side effects. Pica types, based on the ingested non-food items, include pagophagia (eating ice) and geophagia (eating dirt and clay). Additionally, although not severe, treatment for pica eating disorders helps prevent the development of other chronic illnesses.

Temporarily, in most cases, pica eating disorder is often seen in pregnant women, especially those with nutrient deficiencies or individuals on the autism spectrum. This blog explores symptoms of pica eating disorder in adults and causes and treatment options for ingesting non-food materials. So, keep reading to gain a deeper understanding of this unique eating disorder.

Key Highlights

  • While often thought of as a childhood disorder, pica can affect people of all ages, including adults.

  • Certain cultural practices may involve consuming non-food items, blurring the lines between cultural tradition and pica behaviour.

  • Pica is more common during pregnancy, with some women craving non-food substances like chalk or laundry starch.

  • Pica can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying medical or mental health condition, such as iron deficiency or OCD.

  • Pica is not exclusive to humans, as some animals also exhibit this behaviour by eating non-food items.

Table Of Contents

  1. What Is A Pica Eating Disorder?

  2. What Are Pica Eating Disorder Causes And Risk Factors? 

  3. Symptoms Of Pica Eating Disorder

  4. How To Treat Pica Eating Disorder?

  5. Non-Food Items Causing Eating Disorder

  6. Dietitian’s Recommendation

  7. The Final Say

  8. FAQs

  9. References

What Is A Pica Eating Disorder?

Pica is a condition characterised by the compulsive consumption of non-food items that do not provide any nutrition, making it hard for them to control themselves. The effects of pica vary widely depending on the ingested non-food items, ranging from harmless behaviours like consuming ice, common during pregnancy, to ingesting dangerous or toxic substances. 

Individuals with pica might also include regular nutrient-filled foods in their diet; however, this does not negate many cases where these individuals remain nutritionally malnourished. Broad-ranging symptoms of pica often originate from the toxic or bacterial content in non-food items that individuals ingest.

In a research published in the International Journal of Contemporary Pediatrics, 51 children were screened for pica and among them, 38 (74.5%) children had pica for 3-12 months of duration, and 42 (82.4 %) of them ingested 2-3 substances at a frequency of 3-5 times per day 21 (41.2%). Out of 739 pregnant women screened, 220 (29.7%) women were found to have pica. Of the 220 women, 42.2% ingested food substances, 41% ingested non-food substances, and 16.8% consumed both. 

Pregnant women with pica can find symptom relief after childbirth, while many children may outgrow the disorder. However, autistic children or those with developmental or intellectual disabilities may experience pica symptoms throughout their lives.

Also Read: 4 Major Types Of Eating Disorder Symptoms That You Should Be Aware About 

What Are Pica Eating Disorder Causes And Risk Factors? 


The exact causes of pica are not fully understood, but several factors may contribute to its development. These include:

1. Nutritional Deficiencies

In some instances, individuals afflicted with pica may crave substances rich in the specific nutrients they lack; this suggests a potential connection between pica and nutritional deficiencies, specifically zinc, iron or other essential elements. For example, those who are diagnosed with iron deficiency anaemia often experience an intense craving for ice (a condition known as pagophagia) an instinctual response to seek relief from inflamed oral tissues’ discomfort via its soothing effect. Another example is an individual craving for slate pencils due to calcium deficiency.

2. Underlying Mental Health Conditions

Individuals with underlying mental health conditions may exhibit a higher propensity for engaging in repetitive or compulsive behaviours, even including the ingestion of non-food items. Pica frequently correlates to mental health conditions such as intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and various other psychiatric disorders.

Also Read: Neurodivergence: How Brain Works Differently For A Neurodivergent? 

3. Sensory Processing Issues

For instance, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may exhibit sensory sensitivities that shape their eating habits; they might pursue atypical substances for consumption. Similarly, some people afflicted by sensory processing disorders could display reduced reactions to specific textures, tastes or odours.

4. Cultural and Environmental Factors

Certain cultures may deem or even promote consuming particular non-food items due to cultural and environmental factors. The development of pica can also result from a role that cultural practices and environmental influences play. Moreover, exposure to environmental non-food substances, such as lead-based paint or contaminated soil, might elevate the risk for pica. 

5. Psychological Factors

Individuals, influenced by psychological elements like stress, trauma or emotional disturbances - may adopt the ingestion of non-food items as a coping mechanism. These same factors also play a role in fostering pica development.

6. Pregnancy

During pregnancy, hormonal changes and physiological adaptations can lead to cravings for unusual substances, a condition known as "pica craving during pregnancy." Cravings for items like dirt or clay, known as geophagy, may be related to iron deficiency, anaemia or other nutritional deficiencies common during pregnancy.

Symptoms Of Pica Eating Disorder

Experts know that some factors increase a person's likelihood of acquiring pica, even though the precise aetiology of the disease is unknown. Here are the symptoms you should observe:  

Symptoms

Description

Ingestion of Non-Food Substances

The hallmark symptom of pica is the repeated ingestion of substances with no nutritional value. Everyday non-food items ingested may include soap, clay dirt, chalk, hair, paper, cloth, or metal objects.

Persistent Cravings

Individuals with pica experience persistent cravings or urges to consume non-food items like chalk, soil, paper, etc. These cravings may be intense and challenging to resist.

Health Complications

Pica can lead to a range of complications depending on the substances ingested, including gastrointestinal issues (such as stomach pain or constipation), nutritional deficiencies, dental problems (such as gun irritation and tooth damage), and even life-threatening complications such as poisoning or intestinal blockages.

Behavioural Symptoms

By hiding their ingestion habits or exhibiting distress or agitation when access to non-food substances is restricted, individuals with pica may exhibit behavioural symptoms such as hoarding non-food items.

Emotional Distress

Pica can cause significant emotional distress and impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Individuals may feel anxious, ashamed, or embarrassed about their eating habits.


Diagnosis: To rule out underlying mental health conditions diagnosing pica can be challenging, as individuals may be hesitant to disclose their unusual eating habits. Healthcare professionals typically conduct a thorough medical evaluation, including a physical examination, blood tests to check for nutritional deficiencies, and psychological assessments.

Also Read: 10 Natural Home Remedies For Anxiety And Stress With 3-3-3 Rule For Relief! 

How To Treat Pica Eating Disorder?

Treatment for pica eating disorder involves a comprehensive approach. Here are some treatment options:

1. Medical Evaluation

A comprehensive physical examination assesses the individual's overall health, specifically focusing on potential complications related to pica. These may include poisoning from ingested substances, infections resulting from foreign body ingestion, and gastrointestinal issues that could arise. Conducting blood tests or imaging studies is crucial to identify and address these physical complications.

2. Psychological Assessment

To comprehend the psychological components of pica, a mental health specialist, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, does a complete evaluation. This may include exploring underlying stressors, past traumas, or other mental health conditions contributing to the disorder. Psychometric assessments and interviews are standard tools to gain insights into the individual's emotional and cognitive state.

3. Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a structured therapeutic approach to address the thoughts, feelings, and actions linked to pica. It involves behavioural techniques like habit reversal training, which teaches people to spot what causes their pica habits and then switch them out for better reactions. This therapy tries to stop the repeating pattern of compulsive actions by helping people to become more aware and develop coping strategies.

4. Nutritional Counseling

Working collaboratively with a registered dietitian, individuals with pica can receive personalised guidance on developing a balanced and nutritious eating plan. The dietitian assesses the individual's nutritional status, identifies any deficiencies resulting from pica behaviours, and formulates a meal plan encouraging healthy food choices. Nutritional counselling aims to promote a positive relationship with food and address any dietary imbalances.

Also Read: How To Practice Mindful Eating Habits? Know Here! 

5. Medication

In cases where co-occurring mental health conditions contribute to pica, medications may be prescribed. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be used to manage symptoms of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can be underlying factors in pica. Medication is typically prescribed in conjunction with psychotherapy and under close medical supervision.

6. Parental Education And Support (For children)

Often, caregivers of children with Pica are provided with educational resources to understand the disorder. This includes information on creating a safe home environment by removing potential sources of non-food substances, implementing appropriate supervision strategies, and learning effective communication techniques to address the child's needs.

Non-Food Items Causing Eating Disorder

Let’s take a look at these non-food items which people with pica eating disorder often consume:

Non-Food Items

How does it cause Pica?

Complications

Dirt and Soil

Individuals with pica may experience cravings known as geophagia, leading them to eat dirt or soil.

Geophagia can pose risks of ingesting harmful substances present in soil.

Chalk, Clay, or Plaster

Ingesting substances such as plaster, clay, or chalk are common manifestations of pica.

Consumption of these items may lead to digestive issues or blockages.

Paper or Soap

Some individuals with pica may consume non-food items like soap, newspapers, or ordinary paper, such as book pages.

Ingesting paper or soap may result in gastrointestinal problems.

Hair

Pica can lead to the ingestion of hair (trichophagia), resulting in complications such as stomach hairballs.

Severe cases of pica may lead to trichobezoars, causing digestive obstructions.

Cloth or Fabric

Another manifestation of pica involves consuming textiles, fabric, or cloth fibres.

Ingesting cloth can lead to gastrointestinal issues and pose choking hazards.

Metal Objects

Although less common, some individuals with pica may ingest metal objects like pins, nails, or coins.

Ingesting metal objects can cause serious health complications, including injuries to the digestive tract.

Ice

Pagophagia, or the compulsive consumption of ice, is considered a form of non-food ingestion in individuals with pica.

Chewing ice excessively may result in dental issues and can indicate underlying nutritional deficiencies.

Dietitian’s Recommendation

Addressing pica requires a multidisciplinary approach involving medical evaluation, nutritional counselling, and therapy to address underlying causes and develop coping strategies. Supportive environments and understanding from loved ones are crucial for recovery. Increasing awareness and destigmatising discussions around pica can foster understanding and promote access to necessary treatment and support. Pica, an eating disorder characterised by cravings for non-nutritive substances like dirt, clay, or chalk, is often misunderstood. It can stem from nutritional deficiencies, developmental issues, or psychological factors. Individuals with pica may consume items with no nutritional value, risking health complications such as intestinal blockages or poisoning. 

                                                                   Dt. Akshata Gandevikar

The Final Say

Management of pica disorder can present significant challenges, requiring specialised support from experienced professionals trained in treating compulsive behaviour conditions. Individuals affected by pica and their caregivers must seek assistance from local healthcare providers with expertise in addressing this disorder. Through the use of different methods and help, individuals with pica can learn to manage their disorder better, reduce stress levels, and develop positive coping skills.

For this, some helpful strategies include chewing gum as a substitute for non-food items, consciously avoiding triggers for cravings, and implementing stress-reduction techniques. So, through effective treatment and support, people with pica can enhance their quality of life and overcome the challenges of this disorder.

FAQs

1. Is pica a genetic disorder?

While research theorises that there may be genetic predispositions to certain pica behaviours, like sensory processing issues or impulsivity pica itself is not typically considered an absolute genetic disorder. Genetic, environmental, and psychological factors often influence it.

2. Is pica a form of OCD?

No, pica is not classified as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). While both disorders involve repetitive behaviours, OCD is characterised by obsessions and compulsions that are often unrelated to eating or ingestion of non-food items.

3. How to cure pica disorder?

Though there is no particular treatment, effective management typically involves a combination of behavioural therapy, nutritional counselling, medication (if applicable), and addressing underlying psychological or medical factors contributing to the disorder. Seeking professional help from healthcare providers experienced in treating Pica is essential for developing a comprehensive treatment plan.

4. What are the causes of pica eating disorders?

A number of causes can contribute to pica eating disorder, such as stress, hunger or malnourishment, mental health diseases including schizophrenia or OCD, autism spectrum disorder, developmental issues, intellectual disabilities, and, in rare cases, pregnancy-related cravings. Thus, identifying and addressing these underlying factors is absolutely crucial in effectively managing the disorder.

References

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