Pica (Eating Disorder) Causes, Symptoms and Diagnosis

If you ever ate mud pies as a child, you were engaging in pica. And eating weird stuff isn’t limited to children — adults do it too. Let’s examine this fascinating disorder.

WHAT IS PICA DISORDER?

Pronounced “PIE-kuh,” pica is the behavior of eating non-food items. Pica can occur in children and adults, though it’s more common in small children. Some sources say up to 30% of children under age six engage in pica behaviors.

CAUSES OF PICA 

No one knows for sure what causes children to eat dirt, paper or other ‘inedible’ items. Sometimes, a nutritional deficiency is to blame. Low iron and zinc levels can cause a person to experience odd cravings.

Of course, small children like to put objects in their mouths anyway. A child may engage in pica simply because a substance tastes or feels good inside the mouth. Later, they may repeat this behavior as a ‘soothing’ mechanism.

To be considered a true case of pica disorder, the strange eating patterns must persist for at least one month. Merely tasting the dog’s food once or twice, or chewing on a book’s cover, represents pretty normal child behavior, not pica disorder.

In certain adult populations, pica is considered a sort of tradition that is passed from one generation to another. For example, some small population groups in the southeastern United States covertly consume chalk on a regular basis.

DON’T ALL KIDS EAT WEIRD STUFF?

It’s true children enjoy experimenting with taste. Most toddlers and some older children put all types of objects into their mouths to test the flavor and texture of them. That behavior is normal.

Regularly ingesting the same non-food substance over a period of time is not normal, however. In fact, it can be dangerous. For example, a child who swallows pebbles may develop an intestinal obstruction. A child who routinely consumes paper may not feel hungry and thus may not eat enough nutritious food to support healthy growth.

SYMPTOMS OF PICA DISORDER

The only symptom of pica is eating non-food substances or objects. Children and adults with pica may consume:

  • Dirt
  • Clay
  • Sand
  • Paint
  • Chalk
  • Ice (note: many people enjoy chewing on ice; however when ice becomes a substitute for food, it’s problematic)
  • Animal feces
  • Hairballs
  • Paper
  • Other substances normally considered inedible

TREATING PICA

If you suspect your child has pica eating disorder, you should consult your pediatrician. He or she may run some tests that include blood tests to check for nutritional deficiencies, levels of lead in the blood (in cases where the child chews or consumes painted objects) and infections (if the child is ingesting feces).

Where pica is caused by an underlying nutritional deficiency (such as low iron or zinc), your healthcare provider will recommend you correct the deficiency through diet or vitamin supplements. If no underlying cause can be determined, you may be given some behavioral modification tools to use with your child. You may also need to rid the child’s environment of the offending material (such as putting the dog kibble out of reach) and closely supervise your child’s play.

In cases where a developmental disability plays a role in the abnormal eating behavior, your pediatrician may recommend medication to reduce the instances of eating non-food substances.

PICA PROGNOSIS

Many children stop their pica behaviors as suddenly as they began them – and for no known reason. Other children continue to engage in pica into adulthood. As your child gets old enough to better understand the consequences of his or her actions, you should educate him or her about the possible complications from pica, including:

  • Infection
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Bezoar (a mass of material that gets trapped in the tissue of the digestive tract)
  • Lead poisoning
  • Malnutrition (due to ‘filling up’ on inedible material at the expense of eating nutritious food)

Adults who exhibit pica should see their healthcare provider for an examination. Pica can be a dangerous practice. Human beings should stick to ingesting only nutritious food.