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Pica: The World’s Strangest Eating Disorder

The world is full of strange diseases and disorders, but the one known as Pica is one of the strangest eating disorders of all! What is this eating disorder known as Pica? By Dr. Kristie. 

Pica is a disease characterized by the persistent urge to eat inedible things such as clay, hair, wood, coal, and plaster. Pica sufferers have even been known to eat such bizarre items as match stubs, cigarette butts, pins and needles.

Pica is seen most frequently in children and pregnant women. It’s more common in children who are mentally handicapped, as well as children and adults living in poverty stricken parts of the world. Although the cause of this eating disorder is unknown, it’s thought to be related to nutritional deficiencies in the individual since it’s sometimes successfully treated with mineral supplements. This eating disorder really becomes a problem when the victim resorts to eating poisonous materials such as lead, antifreeze, and motor oil (all of which have occurred in Pica sufferers). Other potential problems associated with Pica eating disorder are problems with gastrointestinal disturbances secondary to ingestion of irritating and potentially dangerous non-food items. There is also an increased risk of being exposed to bacteria and parasites from contaminated items eaten, such as feces.

The diagnosis of this strange eating disorder can be difficult to make as the Pica victim is often reluctant to admit to his strange eating practices. This can result in delayed diagnosis and potentially life threatening problems due to poisoning or infection. When the disease is recognized, measures are undertaken to change the abnormal eating behaviors using behavioral strategies. This usually requires the expert knowledge of the victim’s physician as well as the expertise of a social worker or psychologist. Even without treatment, Pica eating disorder usually spontaneously resolves on its own if the patient doesn’t die from poisoning or infection first.

What causes this strange eating disorder? No one knows the firm answer to this question. There have been various theories entertained including nutritional deficiencies, particularly mineral deficiencies such as iron and calcium. It’s also thought the illness may be related to stress or to an underlying biochemical disorder. We know this disorder is more common in families with a lower socioeconomic status and in those with environmental and social deprivation. These may be important factors contributing to the development of the disease. Pica is known to occur throughout the world, but its true incidence is unknown due to the fact that this disease is often underreported.

During the years I practiced medicine full time, I saw three cases of Pica eating disorder. Two of the cases were in children and involved eating a host of interesting substances as well as a pregnant woman who was focused on eating clay. The pregnant woman’s symptoms resolved after completion of her pregnancy, while the children were referred out to specialists. It’s been said that Pica is common enough that up to one quarter of children seen in mental health facilities have some symptoms of this disease.

So, the next time you think you’re suffering from a strange illness, ask yourself is it really strange when you compare it to the strangeness of Pica?

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