An irresistible craving for clay or starch, a tummy full of sand — pica is an ancient behavior recognized worldwide. The most famous case of pica was documented in 1929, when a man was found to have 1446 different non-food items in his stomach. (5)
In Current Psychiatry, doctors Ranit Mishori and Courtney McHale describe a six-year-old girl who was brought to their clinic by her father. Her father told the doctors, “She has been eating textbooks for years.”
While pica has gained some sensationalized attention via reality TV, it is a complicated, centuries-old condition which medicine is still struggling to understand.
Here’s what we know so far:
1) Pica is the Latin term for "magpie."
The magpie is a bird historically considered to eat just about anything,
2) The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition offers a definition.
Pica is defined by the DSM-V as:
- the persistent eating of nonnutritive substances for at least one month
- eating nonnutritive substances that are inappropriate to developmental level
- not being a culturally supported or socially normative practice
3) Pica is the oldest recorded eating disorder.
Pica has been noted since at least as early as the 16th century. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, it was a disease typical of women. (2)
4) Pica sufferers crave non-food substances.
Commonly reported nonnutritive cravings include: dirt, soil, and clay, starch, burnt matches, cardboard, laundry detergent and chalk. (1)
5) Some forms of pica are associated with nutritional deficiencies.
Current Psychiatry reports that in study of 262 adults who were not pregnant but did have iron-deficiency anemia, 45 percent had pica, and 87.3 percent of these women reported eating ice.(1)
6) Certain people are at higher risk for developing pica.
Populations at risk for developing pica include pregnant women, children, immigrants and refugees, people with developmental disabilities and, strangely, their caregivers.(1)