Written by: Mutshidzi Kwinda
Have you ever witnessed someone indulge in non-nutritional stuff and wonder why? Well, I have. When I was growing up in my rural area, I witnessed a young lady who used to eat soil, sandy rocks, and would chew on wood while we played on the dusty gravel streets. At school, I also witnessed others chew on chalk, paper, and pencil lids.
To me, this seemed more like 'just a habit' and nothing more. Recently however, I have come to learn that there is a medical term for this and it is called Pica.
What is Pica?
Pica is a condition (also classified as an eating disorder) whereby you crave, chew, or eat substances that have no nutritional qualities.
It can be due to various reasons or as a result of an underlying disease. Some studies say it could also be cultural.
Some people eat these things as a coping mechanism to stress, or because they have a deficit of nutrients such as iron, vitamins, and minerals. There also may be low levels of hematocrit or hemoglobin in their blood.
It is most common during pregnancy, but can also be caused by underlying conditions like malnutrition.
Things that people with pica may eat or crave include things like soil and/or sand, paper, chalk, oil, wood, paint flakes, ice, hair and soap.
How can you tell if someone has pica?
The signs and symptoms of pica may include bloody stools, lead poisoning, abdominal and stomach pains, damaged teeth and of course the eating of non food items.
How can you help someone who has pica?
The good thing is that it can be treated. The treatment involves different stages, starting with identifying the underlying cause. Speak to your doctor to find more about treatment procedures and referrals. It is important to also note that pica that comes with pregnancy usually goes away after the mother has given birth.
Is it harmful?
Pica can interfere with the absorption of nutrients and can also cause problems with the gastrointestinal tract (which results in stomach pains and bloody stools).
Some items such as ice may be less concerning. But when it is things like metals or paint flakes and other objects, risks for complications are high.
You may develop ulcers, poisoning, choke, or have difficulties with bowel movements. Lead poisoning is another complication that can arise from pica. This is because whilst lead is a very small element, it can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause damage to the brain.