Pica: The other eating disorder

People with pica are compelled to eat things like paper, soap, cloth, hair, string, wool, and rocks.

Nick Beare 3 minute read October 20, 2021
plate with paper

Pica is the Latin word for magpie, a bird known for eating anything. GETTY

When people think about eating disorders, they generally think of diseases like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder. But there is another clinically recognized eating disorder that is discussed far less often.

Pica is an eating disorder where a person compulsively eats things that are not usually considered food or nutritious. Pica gets its name from the Latin word for magpie, pīca — a bird known for its habit of eating pretty much anything.

Signs and symptoms
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the substances that people with pica consume can vary widely from person to person depending on age, availability and associated conditions, but may include paper, soap, cloth, hair, string, wool, soil, chalk, talcum powder, paint chips, gum, metal, pebbles, charcoal, cigarette ash, clay, starch, or ice.

Blood in the stool, stomach pain and bowel problems are all symptoms of pica while lead poisoning (from eating paint chips), intestinal blockages or tears (from eating hard objects), injuries to teeth and various infections are more serious symptoms.

What causes Pica?
While doctors don’t know exactly what causes pica, they do know that it tends to be more common in pregnant women, children, and people with an intellectual disability such as autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or schizophrenia. According to the Recovery Village, 28 to 68 per cent of pregnant women experience pica and it is present in up to 10 per cent of people with a mental disability and 18.5 per cent of children.

For the behaviour to be diagnosed as pica, a person must show signs and experience symptoms for more than a month. This benchmark is particularly true for children, as putting foreign objects in their mouths now and then is a normal part of development.

Pica is often associated with a nutritional deficiency. People with diets severely lacking in zinc or iron may be more susceptible to developing the disorder as their body tries to correct the deficiency.

Treating pica
Treatment for pica depends on what other factors are involved. In many instances, finding out what nutrients are lacking from the patient’s diet and correcting that situation can solve the issue. Testing the blood for lead levels, using X-rays or other imaging techniques to examine what has been eaten, and examining stool samples can all be used to help determine how to treat pica.

When pica isn’t caused by malnutrition, other interventions — like working with a mental health professional — may be introduced to help train behaviour away from feeling the need to ingest non-food items. In some instances, medications may be prescribed to address the associated condition causing the pica.

According to Kids Health, while children usually grow out of pica within a few months, people living with an intellectual disability could struggle with the disorder later in life.


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