Are you sure you want to eat THAT?
Sometimes people have super strong cravings and urges to eat things; I know when I tell myself that I can't have like cake, or ice cream, I really want them, but some people have these intense urges to eat things that are not real foodstuffs. When people have these intense urges, and give in and eat these things such as dirt, animal feces, clay, hairballs, ice, paint, paper, and sand, it is known as pica, and it can be a pretty serious issue. Most times when you are really craving something, it is because you need the nutrients in that food; with pica the "food" you crave really isn't nutritious at all.
What is the deal with Pica?
Truly pica is when people eat any of the aforementioned foods and it is usually due to a nutritional deficit. Most often the cause is iron deficiency anemia and zinc deficiency, but some people just like feeing a certain texture in their mouths, so they eat these different items. If this behavior of eating non-food items lasts more than one month, it is designated as pica because there are no tests to diagnose it.
Who is usually affected?
The groups at the highest risk for pica are children and pregnant women. It is estimated that between 10-36% of all children in the 1-6 age group have pica. This can be a serious risk for lead poisoning if children are eating paint and paint chips, so your HCP should test their lead levels. And for pregnant women, if they have a nutritional deficit, which can tend to be iron, they will have pica to try and replace the missing nutrient that their babies need. Anyone who has a poor diet and is lacking in nutritious food is at risk for pica.
What are the risks?
As mentioned above, some children can have high lead levels from eating paint which can lead to mental disorders and death, but some other complications are:
*Bezoars (a mass of undigestible material trapped in the body- stomach usually)
*These usually require surgical intervention to treat
What are the treatments?
All underlying medical conditions need to be treated (like those listed above) and there also needs to be a level of behavioral therapy. Like any other behavior people get used to in their lives, or bad habit, it needs to be broken. Sometimes a negative consequence for eating a non-food and a positive reinforcement when healthy food is eaten can work, or just feeding nutritious foods can lead to the cravings to diminish and the behavior will go away on its own.
Depending on the cause of the pica, your HCP will be able to help guide you through the treatment and how to reshape behaviors to ensure that you are eating healthy food and preventing this from occurring in the future, and teach you the signs to look for when you start having these urges/cravings and what to do.
Some people feel very "freak"-ish because of pica, but it really isn't something to be ashamed about, and it is usually a simple treatment. I wouldn't encourage my friends to have a bowl of sand when they come over for dinner, but I would look for it as an opportunity to explain this condition and how to treat it. If you are worried at all about you or your children, go see your HCP and get treated.
Yours in Good Health