What Is Pica?

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In any type of eating disorder, a person’s pattern of eating has a negative impact on their physical and behavioral health and  their daily functioning. Pica is one type of eating disorder. It’s characterized by the frequent chewing or ingestion of items that are not considered food or that do not contain nutrients. This pattern of eating comes with multiple potential risks. It is important to recognize pica in order to find successful and supportive interventions. Keep reading to find out more on what is known about this type of disordered eating behavior.

Symptoms of Pica

Typically, individuals with pica consume a regular diet in addition to the non-nutrient items they ingest. The type of non-food items that are eaten varies from person to person. Examples include:

  • Dirt, soil or clay
  • Soap
  • Ice
  • Hair
  • Paint chips
  • Chalk
  • Pebbles
  • Coffee grounds
  • Egg shells

Causes/Risk Factors of Pica

Pica can occur at any age. The exact underlying cause of pica remains unknown, though certain factors have been linked with an increased likelihood of developing behaviors of pica, including:

  • Malnutrition 
  • Iron deficiency
  • Pregnancy
  • Other behavioral health diagnoses (such as schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • Impaired cognitive functioning (such as autism spectrum disorders)

Diagnosing Pica

In order to be diagnosed with pica, an individual must regularly consume non-food items in a manner that is not appropriate to their developmental level or their cultural context. The behavior of consuming these items tends to be compulsive and must continue for over a month-long period in order to qualify as pica. Additionally, pica cannot be diagnosed in children under the age of 2, since chewing or swallowing non-food items is developmentally typical at this age and may not indicate an eating disorder.

Ingesting items that are not food carries many risks for the body. Some of the complications associated with pica are:

  • Constipation
  • Bowel obstruction or perforation
  • Infection
  • Electrolyte abnormalities
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Toxicity, including lead exposure
  • Tooth decay or damage

Treatment for Pica

During the process of diagnosing pica, a healthcare professional will likely run blood tests in order to find whether there is an underlying nutrient or electrolyte deficiency that may be leading to pica symptoms. If a deficiency is identified, then it can sometimes be corrected with oral supplementation. After the deficiency is normalized, the pica behaviors will potentially stop.

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There is no medication available to specifically treat pica. If no physiological link is found, or if nutritional correction does not impact an individual’s eating pattern, then behavioral interventions are available. Treatment aims at redirecting behavior over time, commonly using reinforcement or aversion techniques. 

Pica cases are underreported because they are often difficult to identify. If you or someone you know is having difficulty controlling their intake of nonfood items, it is important to reach out to a healthcare professional for assessment. With proper support, the dangerous complications of this disorder can be avoided.

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