PICA Eating Disorder

Definition of Pica

Pica is defined by behavior that involves eating and ingesting non-food substances. These may include materials such as coal, dirt or paper and are not typically thought of as digestible food.

The symptoms of pica are eating non-food materials and symptoms need to be present for a minimum of one month for the diagnosis to be made.

The items that people with pica choose to consume are varied but common substances include pottery, mud, clay, paper, laundry starch, charcoal, ash, coal, sand, wool, carpet, metal, hair, paint, wood, plastic and tissues.

The consumption of food starches such as uncooked pasta, rice or flour does not meet the pica criteria as these are considered to be nutritive substances. For a person to be diagnosed with pica, the substances that they are ingesting need to be of no known nutritive value.

Causes of Pica

The definitive causes of pica are not currently established, however there are some theories as to why it occurs.

The prevalence of pica seems to be greater in children, pregnant women, developmentally challenged individuals and adults who are suffering from an iron deficiency. This leads some professionals to believe that pica is the body’s attempt to ingest some form of mineral content. In certain cases it may be a nutrient deficiency which is causing the person to crave strange substances. This may be present in people who present with pica and are suffering from iron deficiency anemia or low levels of zinc.

Pica should be treated because there are complications associated with eating non-food items. Some substances may be toxic when ingested and may lead to poisoning. Nutritional deficiencies can also be suffered if the person is too full up on non-food items to eat properly. Stones and other items which cannot be digested may cause blockages or constipation.

Other potential causes:

  • Dieting, where an individual may be trying to fill their stomach with non-food substances in order to ease hunger sensations (There are reports of models doing this.)
  • Developmental problems like autism, developmental disabilities and brain abnormalities.
  • Mental health conditions
  • Malnutrition
  • Stress

Pica in Pregnancy

It is not known exactly why pica is more common in pregnant women, but there is a theorized connection with iron deficiency according to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The most common substances that are craved by pregnant women who have pica are clay, laundry starch and dirt. Eating items that are not food substances may be harmful to the developing child as well as the mother and for this reason any women who experiences cravings for non-food items should talk to her healthcare provider.

Here is more on eating disorders and pregnancy.

Pica in Children

Children older than two years of age can be diagnosed with pica. When children younger than two are in the habit of placing non-food items in their mouths it is rarely because they have pica, but more likely to be part of their growth and developmental learning phase. Until the age of two, it is considered normal behavior for a child to place all sorts of non-food objects in their mouths and this is no cause for concern unless it is an object that could be dirty or obstruct an airway.

It is estimated that between 10 percent and 30 percent of children between the ages of one and six years old have pica. These children are those that continue to persistently eat non-food substances past the age that most other children have ceased to do so. Pica is believed to decrease with age. If you are concerned that your child might have pica it is important that you seek the help of a medical professional.


Return To OSFED

Return To Home Page


Written by Tabitha Farrar – 2014


Psychiatric Annals

American Pregnancy